It’s the height of summer and trouble is brewing on the doors of England’s nightclubs. From September, Boris Johnson has said, clubs and other crowded venues will have to ask guests for proof that they have been fully vaccinated. In essence, the new door policy is two jabs or you’re not coming in.
Should the government press ahead, in the face of a coalition of opposition that includes Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the right wing of the Conservative party, it won’t just be nightclubs affected.
Crowded places that welcome guests in large numbers, such as gig venues, are likely to be included. The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, has hinted that sports and business events may also be admissible only to the double-jabbed.
Clubs, though – which unlike pubs, restaurants and most bars were closed for almost 18 months to 19 July – have been the focus of the policy.
“We’ve been thrown under the bus,” said Peter Marks, chief executive of Rekom UK, which owns club chains including Pryzm and Atik.
Marks is better informed than most about the financial pressures facing the industry. The business was known as Deltic until it went bust last year and was rescued only thanks to investment from Swedish nightlife group Rekom. It failed because, despite businesses being forcibly closed, there was a dearth of financial support available to clubs.
The announcement of vaccine passports, Marks said, came as a “huge shock”, arriving days after a government report had concluded that there was no need for them.
“Everything that I’ve been involved with with ministers had concluded we wouldn’t be having these,” he says. He believes the government made a political choice in an effort to be seen as responsible, amid public anxiety at the lifting of restrictions elsewhere.
“I don’t think Boris has the bottle to ask pubs to have Covid certification and that’s why he’s targeted us. Young people don’t vote, or vote Labour,” he says. “It’s completely shambolic – playing to the gallery because infection rates were rising.”
Polling has consistently shown support for most safety measures, which makes it difficult for the nightlife sector to make its case.
“It’s a hugely prickly subject and very divisive,” says Michael Kill, the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA). “It has split many people, and friends have fallen out over this.”
But the industry’s view is pretty unanimous. A flash poll of about 250 venues carried out by the NTIA found that 83% were against vaccine passports.
The chief concern is that young people will stop coming. A surprisingly high 80% of nightclub trade is spontaneous, rather than booked in advance. That makes it vulnerable to people deciding on the spot to go elsewhere.
Both Kill and Marks point out that many younger people won’t have had the chance to be fully vaccinated by September and that vaccine scepticism skews towards the young. And that’s not to mention the cohort of people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, or the mistrust within some ethnic minority communities who have reason to be wary of mass vaccination programmes.
The danger, add Kill and Marks, is not only that young people will go elsewhere but that clubs and gig venues won’t be able to find the staff, exacerbating an existing and acute shortage of bouncers.
Some well-known artists, too, have said they won’t play venues where vaccine passports are required, with rock star Eric Clapton the latest to voice opposition.
This all threatens to hamper the sector’s much needed recovery. But what outside observers really don’t understand, says Kill, is that the government’s policy simply may not be effective.
“It’s a very dangerous game because what will end up happening is that people who don’t have the vaccine will go to illegal events that aren’t Covid safe and aren’t regulated, licensed or managed.”
The timing of the vaccine passport policy is also of concern to Kill.
“They’re doing it just before freshers’ week. What do you think is going to happen with thousands of students?”
Reg Walker, a security consultant to live music venues and festivals, anticipates enforcement problems, warning:
“You could end up with people turning up and trying to get in anyway.
If they turn up in numbers, you end up with a public order situation, the same as you saw at Wembley stadium [during the European football championship].”
There are other pitfalls too. Clubs already feel there is no substantial difference in how crowded their venues are compared with bars and pubs, which often have standing room only come midnight.
There is nothing, in theory, to stop pubs and bars with sufficient floorspace setting up dancefloors to cater to those who aren’t vaccinated or don’t want to be. That means a limited decrease in risk, if at all, but a huge competitive disadvantage for nightclubs, which are already playing catch-up, having been able to open only since 19 July.
Vaccine passports are costing money even before their implementation.
Tickets for gigs or events that have already been sold will have come with terms and conditions attached. These won’t have included the requirement to display a vaccine passport.
“I spoke to a promoter who said he’s had to refund over £50,000 worth of tickets,” said Kill. “That’s people who aren’t vaccinated or don’t want to be. They bought in good faith and are now in that position.”
The solution to avoiding business failures while keeping people as safe as possible, adds Marks, lies in letting clubs and music venues do what they are already good at.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer but it’s utterly ludicrous to target one industry based on absolutely no science. The only fair way of dealing with this is through a boring old process called risk assessment.
“We have the best ventilation in the sector because of the days of smoking, with air change every four minutes.
“There’s all the clearing we can do, [and] having more security than anyone else does, we can do check-in … there’s no sense in [what the government is doing] other than for political purposes.
“If you’re trying to encourage under-30s to get vaccinated, this is a terrible way of going about it.”
Not all venues are concerned, though. AEG, which owns the O2 Arena in London, is pre-empting the new policy. It said it would be asking for proof of a vaccine, a negative test or immunity to Covid-19 on entry to its first show since reopening, a set by Gorillaz on 10 August.
That might be OK for huge venues with plenty of space and deep pockets. For the smaller places that make up the bedrock of British culture, the optimism that came with reopening remains tinged by anxiety.