It would risk gifting a slice of the night economy to the black market
We will apparently find out on June 14 whether or not the Government will go ahead with a full unlocking of the nation on June 21.
To many, this might feel a relatively low-stakes question. Pubs, gyms, swimming pools, theatres and restaurants are all open. Gigs and nightclubs are mostly the preserve of the young, whose interests have hardly been a priority at any point during the pandemic.
It is obviously extremely difficult, if not impossible, to operate a club in a Covid-secure way. But ministers should think carefully before heeding calls to push back their reopening by another couple of months.
Pulling the rug out from under venues with a week’s notice would compound the woes of an already struggling sector. The January issue of Alix Partners’ Market Recovery Monitor reported that 163 nightclubs had closed over the past 12 months, with many survivors having to crowd-fund after struggling to access the Government’s culture support.
But it would also risk gifting a huge slice of the country’s night economy to the black market for most, if not all, of the summer.
The forced closure of legitimate clubs has been a big boost for the rave scene. While total numbers for free parties are hard to find, by June last year (just a few months into lockdown) the Metropolitan Police had shut down almost as many as in the entirety of 2019. In July alone, over 500 illegal raves were shut down. The sheer volume of press reports about illegal events illustrates the scale of the issue.
But pandemic conditions have also changed the landscape. Tougher enforcement makes it much riskier than it used to be for amateurs, who face not only a £10,000 fine but the confiscation of all their sound system.
Yet with no official clubs to sate demand, the financial incentives to break the rules are great. Some events can sell hundreds of tickets at up to £20 a pop and top that up with on-site sale of alcohol and narcotics — all without facing typical overheads such as rent and taxes. The organisers of one of the huge raves in Manchester last year cleared enough that they were comfortable simply abandoning thousands of pounds worth of equipment.
Taken together, these factors favour organisers with deep pockets, reliable access to secure locations, drugs connections, and experience avoiding the police. Which is a pretty good description of organised crime.
Does this mean that every rave you read about is mafia-run? Of course not. But two summers where the only parties are illegal parties means a wave of promoters who cut their teeth on the wrong side of the law. Some of them will carry that mindset, along with their experience and contacts, into the post-Covid economy.
Raves and free parties predate the pandemic, and are generally a benign part of the UK’s nightlife. But there is a huge difference between being a marginal supplement to the legitimate club scene and a wholesale replacement for it.
Young people are going to go out and party this summer. The only question is who gets to profit.