Edinburgh's Christmas and Hogmanay events in doubt over virus fears

EDINBURGH’s lucrative Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations face being dramatically scaled back or even cancelled completely due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival has been staged annually since 1993.

Council leaders and organisers of the city’s winter festivals, which have been staged for nearly 30 years, have suggested they are unlikely to go ahead in their normal format.

Although both events are still being promoted on their official websites, there are believed to be huge doubts behind the scenes about whether social distancing restrictions will have been eased in time to allow them to go ahead safely.

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Their loss would be another huge blow to Edinburgh’s economy following the cancellation of all of the city’s main summer festivals.

The six weeks of winter events brought nearly three million visitors into the city centre in recent years, generating more than £150 million for local businesses.

The three-day Hogmanay event normally attracts around 180,000 people, including visitors from more than 80 countries.

More than 2.6 million people visited the city’s Christmas attractions in East Princes Street Gardens last year.

Serious doubts over this year’s events have emerged ahead of the city council launching a “root and branch review” of the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals.

Councillors are expected to approve a bid to bring an independent company in to carry out the first major public consultation over what shape they should take in future.

The forthcoming review was originally ordered last June when it emerged that Underbelly, the events company which has had an £800,000 contract to produce the festivals in recent years, had been given a two-year extension.

However, people will not be asked whether this year’s events should go ahead or not, as the 12-week review, which is expected to get underway in August, will only affect events after the 2021-22 season.

Both of this year’s winter festivals are currently being promoted on the official Christmas and Hogmanay websites.

However, in an exclusive interview, council leader Adam McVey pledged that the city would not go ahead with staging events that would put the people of Edinburgh at “additional risk”.

He said: “We don’t know what the situation is going to be later in the year. That’s why we’ve not taken a fixed position yet. But when we do take a fixed position the absolute first and last decision will be public health.

“We think we’ve still got some time to consider everything, look at all the public health advice and guidance that is coming through, and come back with a plan that has public health at its absolute heart.

“We’ve not come to any fixed positions on anything this year. To do that right now wouldn’t be right.

“We are still focused on public health concerns right now and I think we will still be focused on public health concerns later in the year.

“It’s absolutely not about finding a balance between public health concerns and the economy. The over-riding fact is the public health of the city and its people.

“I don’t think anybody would expect to see events on the same scale in Edinburgh. I don’t think the world will be ready for events on that scale by then. We’re not going to move ahead with anything that puts people in this city at additional risk.”

A spokeswoman for Underbelly, which is also one of the main promoters and producers of shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, said: The most important consideration about future events in Edinburgh must be safety and the continuing effort to contain the spread of Covid-19.

“Edinburgh must come first and our immediate thoughts are with those supporting communities on the front line today.

“Our Christmas and Hogmanay events will only take place if the relevant authorities deem it safe to do so. We will be looking for clear evidence and reassurance of this.

“The point at which a final decision has to be made on the winter festivals is still some months away.

“We are in regular contact with the city council and government agencies and are planning with great flexibility and with a clear focus on safety.

“Should it be safe to host the events in the winter, they will be held in the most appropriate format to match the circumstances of the time.

“The structure and shape of the events will be guided by public health considerations.

Last year’s winter festivals were dogged by controversy over a huge expansion in the size of the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens, a failure to secure planning permission for extensive new infrastructure, and concerns about the growing commercialisation of the city centre.

Full public access has yet to be restored to East Princes Street Gardens after it was used for last year’s Christmas market.

A new drainage system was installed following widespread flooding in February.

The review was meant to get underway earlier this year but was put on hold, along with other major consultations, as the council grappled with the impact of the Covid-19 virus.

Although the council is yet to disclose what options will be set out in the consultation, key issues are likely to include whether East Princes Street Gardens should continue to be used for the city’s annual Christmas market and other festive attractions.

It is thought alternative locations to the gardens could be put forward.

Cllr McVey added: “If we get the process right it will stand us in really good stead for the future and we will have fantastic world-class events that are brilliant for people in Edinburgh, brilliant for visitors to come and enjoy, and we end up with something that the entire city can get behind for years to come. This city belongs to the people who live here and the businesses who operate in it. It is owned by all of us as a collective. We need to respond to what the city wants.

“Edinburgh is always going to be the home of Hogmanay. People are always going to want to come to Edinburgh at that time of year.

“It’s worth remembering that this year there were record numbers of people who went to the Christmas events and enjoyed themselves. I don’t pick up a huge amount of hostility to having events in Edinburgh that people can go to and enjoy themselves at.

“But what I do pick up are legitimate concerns about the location and shape of them.

“What this forthcoming conversation will do is give us the opportunity to work out exactly what we want and where we want it, and go forward on that basis. The exact shape of these events is very much up to the people.”

Deputy council leader Cammy Day said: “We’re focused on learning lessons from what’s gone before and make sure we keep Edinburgh residents and businesses at the heart of shaping the future of Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay.

“By progressing with this now, we’ll make sure that we won’t encounter any further delays to the consultation and will be able to launch this 12 week engagement as soon as it is practical. We’re taking these steps now to make sure we deliver the kind of winter events people want for the city in future years.”

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