The Edinburgh Festival Fringe needs urgent help to get back on its feet this summer - Brian Ferguson

The highlight of my year so far was a visit the other day to an abandoned upside-down toy shop which looked as if it had seen better days.

The topsy-turvy building created by artist Rachel MacLean for the grounds of Jupiter Artland on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is partly inspired by the demise of high street retail.

But MacLean herself admits it has also become a fitting metaphor for the way the world has been turned upside down by Covid.

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Over the last week I have felt like I was working in an upside down office as I tried to make sense of the bewildering landscape Scottish cultural venues and festivals have found themselves in.

The good news is that a reopening date of 17 May is firmly on the horizon. Attractions like the National Museum of Scotland, Kelvingrove and V&A Dundee have already returned, along with bars, restaurants and hotels. A return to normality is a real prospect for many.

Imagine then how it must have felt to be a venue manager or a festival organiser when long-awaited guidelines for the return of live events delievered a hammer blow that all venues must have two metre social distancing in place.

Operators of venues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, who have normally finalised their programmes by now, have been telling me for months that the Scottish Government’s public health experts have been adamant all events this August must be staged on that basis.

This is despite the UK Government setting a provisional date for the lifting of social distancing by 21 June back in February and Scottish hospitality businesses securing approval for one metre social distancing 10 months ago.

A record audience of more than three million attended the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell

It is two months since Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, bemoaned the state of “limbo” that artists, venues and promoters were stuck in.

Much has changed since then, not least the Fringe Society announcing it would accept bookings from this week, the Edinburgh International Festival revealing plans for live shows and the city’s Hidden Door festival announcing a late summer return.

But is it now more likely that the Fringe will go ahead in meaningful form this August that it was two months ago? Not really.

Everything still seems possible, from the lifting of social distancing restrictions across Scotland in July, to a Fringe with most of the big venues back in some form.

But it also seems equally possible that unless there is very swift movement on the two metre social distancing stance Edinburgh may not have much of a Fringe to speak of.

While there is dismay across the entertainment sector at the failure to budge so far, the issue is particularly acute for Fringe venues, who cannot simply put off shows.

They have to either take a huge financial risk that restrictions will end up being eased this August, or simply give up trying to do anything at a time when it looks like live events will have bounced back elsewhere in the UK.

I suspect Fringe venues still have plenty fight left in them. But, with the clock ticking down, it is now time for anyone who truly cares about the event and its value to Scotland to do all they can to ensure it gets back on its feet this summer.

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