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As Covid-19 cases rise across the world, hopes that life could get back to some semblance of normality by summer are fading. What chance do we have of going to a festival, flying off for a holiday or attending a major sporting event?
Doubts are growing about the wisdom of going ahead with major international sporting events, including the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Euro 2020 football tournament, this summer as large parts of the world’s population are likely to remain unvaccinated and highly infectious Covid variants will still be circulating.
Officially at least, spectators and Olympic athletes from over 200 nations are expected to descend on the Japanese capital, which is currently battling a third wave of the virus, in July. And footballers from 24 countries, including some with the highest Covid death rates, such as Italy, Spain and England, are due to play 51 matches across 12 stadiums in 12 countries in June.
Yet concern is growing in public health circles that these could end up being dangerous super-spreader events, even as vaccination programmes are seeing millions of jabs administered in wealthy nations. Prof Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, said it would impossible to put on the Olympics safely because the pandemic response varied from country to country. “The global health response is so mixed. There are lots of countries with high levels of the virus and the pipeline of vaccines is not likely to deliver the goods for many middle- and lower-income countries until well into the year,” he said. “The chances of having populations, or even sporting populations, clear of the virus is very limited.”
At present, nine out of 10 people in poorer countries, including Kenya and Pakistan, are set to miss out on the vaccine this year because wealthy nations have reserved more than they need, according to by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, whose membership includes Oxfam and Amnesty International.
Scally said the practical problems would ultimately prove insurmountable for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is still insisting the event will go ahead. “It is going to be enormously difficult to have a gathering of people from hundreds of different countries. If someone proposed bringing people from all over the world to one place during a pandemic, you would think they were bonkers.”
Lord Coe, the president of World Athletics and a member of the IOC, said he had to be confident that the Games would go ahead, but he conceded there might need to be restrictions on spectators. “There will be Games, but under adapted circumstances,” he said. “We probably accept there is going to be less diversity in the stadiums, and when I say that I mean the scope of global fans. We probably accept there is going to be a bigger proportion of domestic crowds than before.
“I don’t want to remotely downplay the importance of having the spirit of passionate fans in the stadiums [but] 99% watch this on TV.”
This comes after Dick Pound, a senior member of the IOC, admitted he “can’t be certain” that the Games will take place, and polls showed a majority of Japanese people wanted them postponed or cancelled.
However, the British Olympic Association stressed that its athletes were still preparing. “The Games are still seven months away and everything we are hearing from Tokyo and the IOC tells us very clearly that they are going to go ahead, and that the Japanese government are absolutely committed to them,” said Andy Anson, the association’s chief executive.
Uefa said it was working with Euro 2020’s 12 host cities – including London, which has just declared a Covid emergency – on operational scenarios, including full stadiums, half-full stadiums and playing behind closed doors. It added that plans for each city would be made at the start of March.
Other summer events, such as Wimbledon and the five-match Test series against India, may also have to take place without spectators. The All England Club is drawing up plans for tennis matches with limited or no crowds, while the England and Wales Cricket Board has promised to refund people if fans are unable to attend.
Music festivals are a major British business and a key draw for tourists. When the burgeoning calendar of annual events was wiped away last year, some optimism remained in a young and resilient sector. Tickets for bigger festivals, such as Glastonbury, were held over for 2021 and there was faith that an industry offering a flexible roster of open-air entertainment had a better chance of recovery than most.
Accordingly, Stormzy, Liam Gallagher and Queens of the Stone Age had been secured for the Reading and Leeds festival this year, while retro-stars Duran Duran, Pixies and Grace Jones were lined up for BST Hyde Park.
But last week the siren sounded. Festival managements are urgently calling for state-backed insurance, building on an appeal from Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis.
Speaking to the Commons Digital, Media Culture and Sport select committee last week, Sacha Lord, co-founder of the Parklife festival, raised doubts over the feasibility of going ahead, saying: “Social distancing does not work at any of these events. If it is a festival, you just cannot put social distancing in place, so we anticipate operating at 100%.”
Paul Reed, who runs the Association of Independent Festivals, said organisers of the larger events would need to make decisions by the end of this month. Others, he felt, might hold off for longer. Concerns led the committee to appeal to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to back a cancellation insurance scheme. The committee’s chair, Julian Knight, called for the creation of a scheme “as a matter of urgency”.
“The government is telling us that life should be getting back to normal by the summer but unless it can provide a safety net, it will be a summer without festivals,” Knight wrote, adding: “The government already offers a level of cover to the film and television industries: now is the time to extend support to other creative industries or risk losing some of our best loved and world-renowned festivals.”
This weekend, organisers of the Edinburgh festival fringe, Brighton festival and London International Festival of Theatre joined the calls for financial safeguards and warned that livelihoods were in jeopardy.
Over the past few days Jess Crownhill has been browsing the sites of low-cost airlines, wondering whether to book a flight to the sun this summer. There are plenty of tempting deals, but any plans she makes could be scuppered by Covid.
“I think I’m going to risk it,” she said. “I’m just desperate to have something to look forward to – and surely we’ll be able to go on holiday by the summer?”
That is the fervent hope of millions of people – and the tourism industry, both in the UK and abroad – but, as yet, few are making concrete plans. Under current lockdown rules, all but essential travel is banned. Restrictions could ease by the spring if enough people have been vaccinated, but many people are wary of booking holidays after facing cancellations and last-minute quarantine rules last summer.
“I’ve got nothing booked for this year yet – I’m still chasing refunds from last year,” said the travel expert Simon Calder. “I’m hugely looking forward to travelling again, but I’ve no idea where or when.”
January is usually the peak time for summer holiday bookings. Sean Tipton of the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said members were reporting a pick-up in inquiries and a small increase in bookings.
“There’s pretty significant pent-up demand. Most people see a break as essential, not a luxury – especially after the year we’ve had,” he said. The industry had seen a 90% drop in business during 2020, he said.
Some airlines are offering cheap deals for early spring, but Calder advised people to wait before booking, and to book a package holiday through a travel agent to be sure of a refund.
Airlines and countries could insist on proof of having had a Covid vaccination as a condition of flying or entry. Qantas signalled such a move in November, with Alan Joyce, the carrier’s chief executive, saying: “I think that’s going to be a common thing, talking to my colleagues in other airlines around the globe.”
But, said Calder, “this is tricky while there’s no internationally recognised certificate of vaccination. In five years’ time, absolutely, I’m sure it will be routine.”
For now, “no one wants British tourists from a public health point of view. But they will need us as soon as things start to loosen up. Spain and Portugal in particular desperately need a decent summer.”
A significant proportion of people might opt for staycations this year, given the uncertainties around travel. “That may be just as well. A combination of Covid and Brexit is likely to be disastrous for inbound tourists to the UK,” said Calder.
Source: The Guardian
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