Why it’s Time to Cancel the Edinburgh Festival

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Scotland, across Europe and the world, I believe we should now cancel all Edinburgh Festival events scheduled for 2020, including the Fringe and International Festival. The Scottish Government has already advised that all mass gatherings over 500 people should be cancelled. We cannot, in all conscience, plan for a petri dish of performances with thousands of people in close contact on an hourly basis in four and a half months’ time.

Euro 2020 will be postponed or cancelled altogether. As we know, the Edinburgh Festivals, with their 4 million plus visitors, are in third place globally after the World Cup and Olympic Games in terms of visitor numbers. It is totally irresponsible to continue to plan for a mass influx of millions of people from all over the globe in the current conditions.

This is the time of year when performers and visitors start planning their trip and spending money on what for many is a substantial financial outlay. As well as being the only feasible decision to protect the health of our citizens, it is the most responsible way to prepare visitors for the inevitable disappointment of cancelled trips.

Assuming we avoid a mass outbreak akin to Italy, scientific estimates put the virus peak in June with significant numbers of cases through the summer and autumn. That’s IF containment measures are effective and IF we are successful in ‘flattening the curve’ and delaying the spread of the disease. Any introduction of additional risk factors during this period – such as the influx of millions of potentially contagious visitors – is simply unthinkable, and would inevitably lead to a second wave of cases. We cannot add any additional burden to our NHS which must focus on saving lives.

Beyond the immediate health danger, the cancellation of the festivals will offer the city itself some breathing space, and an opportunity to reflect. It is abundantly clear that Edinburgh is now suffering the multiple consequences of overtourism. Many locals feel that the city they love is being unsustainably exploited for commercial gain. Consequences include environmental damage, public service overload, especially transport services, and the hollowing out of communities, in particular in the Old Town, which local residents feel is becoming unliveable.

We must consider alternative options. These may include the dramatic remodelling of an international event that is in effect the victim of its own success. The Olympic Games and World Cup happen once every 4 years. We could certainly consider this level of frequency for the Festival. At most, we should plan for a biennial event. However frequent, we also have to do a much better job of mitigating the significant environmental impact, since we find ourselves in a climate emergency.

In these worrying and stressful times, it is clear just how unimportant economic growth models are when the safety and wellbeing of our families and communities are threatened. This crisis has already caused us to reconsider our immediate daily priorities. I sincerely hope that a further benefit will be the realignment of our city-wide priorities to ensure we have a city that is once again safe, sustainable and worthy of the fantastic citizens it serves.

Published in the National | 16th March 2020