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The Guardian view on Covid-hit arts: there is a solution | Editorial

A short-time work scheme would help freelancers when the going gets tough

It is not just the hospitality industry that is facing chaos in this moment of not-lockdown. The cultural sector, especially the performing arts, is similarly afflicted by the message that – quite rightly – extreme caution should be observed when it comes to attending crowded indoor events. What’s wholly unfair, though, is that the workers in the live arts – everyone from electricians to wigmakers, actors to folk musicians, front-of-house personnel to opera singers – are, once again, left flailing. On the one hand, shows are being cancelled because of illness and self-isolation as, especially in London, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 surges. (It is easier, at the present time, to count which West End shows remain open rather than those that have been forced into pre-Christmas closure.) On the other hand, bookings are plummeting. The scale of this is severe. Before the pandemic, the turnover of the arts and creative sector was £9.8bn – which nearly halved in 2020. Up to October 2021, the industries recorded revenues of just £4.7bn. There was a lot riding on the usually lucrative winter season.

What this means on the ground is individuals having their work cancelled well into the new year: livelihoods are collapsing, again. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a £30m top-up to the culture recovery fund. This is welcome, but it targets organisations in cashflow crisis, not individuals – and in the performing arts, 70% of the workforce are freelance. At the moment, there is no help for these people: the SEISS (self-employment income support scheme) was closed in September (and many cultural workers anyway found themselves ineligible under its frame of reference). The alternatives may be finding work outside the sector – or turning to universal credit.

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