Clubbers shun reopened venues in England amid confusion over Covid safety

Owners blame ‘low consumer confidence’ and confused government messages for poor post-‘freedom day’ attendances

First published on Sat 31 Jul 2021 08.00 EDT

Nightclubs in England have seen low attendances and been forced to cancel events as the pandemic continues to disrupt the nightlife industry almost two weeks on from “freedom day”.

Many operators blamed “low consumer confidence” in the face of confusing government messages about whether it was safe to attend.

“It has not been the freedom that we’ve been expecting,” said John Clark, owner of Faces nightclub in Gants Hill, east London. “We’re unlocked on paper but we’re just in this twilight zone where it’s not been as busy as we’ve anticipated.”

The club was forced to cancel its first post-“freedom day” bottomless brunch as it couldn’t get enough staff. Clark said 35% of Faces staff had been required to self-isolate in the past week alone, having been “pinged” by the NHS track and trace app.

He added: “People are confused by the messages they’re being given … we’ve had dozens of calls from customers asking whether they need to wear masks or have a vaccine passport.”

Off the back of a challenging first weekend for the industry, nightclub operators urged the government to rethink vaccine passports, which the government plans to make mandatory for entry into large-scale venues from the end of September.

Will Power, owner of Lab 11 in Digbeth, Birmingham, said it was “complete madness” to limit nightclub entry to only those who’ve been double jabbed. “If it gets passed, I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of challenges. It’s just nightclubs people are talking about now, but it sets a precedent that could run through a lot of other industries.

Lab 11 had also been plagued by low attendance. “It’s great to be back but we saw a pretty large amount of no-shows last weekend,” said Power.

The venue sold 1,400 tickets for its reopening event but only 450 attended. The second event didn’t fare much better, with 850 attendees against 1,500 tickets sold, and Lab 11 have had to refund as much as 40% of the tickets for some events.

While they had not yet had to cancel any events since reopening, Power said the venue was in a “vicious cycle”. “Every time we’ve had to reschedule events due to restrictions it lowers consumer confidence in purchasing advance tickets for future events.”

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), said: “These are businesses that have just spent months – some have been waiting for this moment ever since they shut down in March 2020 – preparing to reopen. Then, on the much-vaunted day of reopening, they are told, ‘Actually, you are going to have to completely change key features of how you operate within months’. It just isn’t fair and it isn’t right to treat businesses this way.”

On Friday, Heaven in Charing Cross, London announced it they would be the first UK nightclub to offer vaccinations. The club is offering first doses of Pfizer and is accepting walk-ins, although people can book ahead online.

Jeremy Joseph, the owner of G-A-Y Group and Heaven, said: “It makes me feel better to know that we’re doing something positive to support the vaccine rollout.

Joseph added that since reopening it had been “hell on Earth”. “We’re back open because we have to be but then the government are talking about bringing in vaccine passports from September. It makes you wonder, are we doing the right thing?”

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