Visitor attractions have been hit by cancellations and staff shortages in the crucial run-up to Christmas due to the Omicron surge.
One large London museum is struggling to keep all of its galleries open following a Covid outbreak among staff, with managers out on the museum floor covering front-of-house roles.
A staff member said the institution was reluctant to shut its paid-for attractions due to fears of losing income. “Feels a bit irresponsible for us to still be open and interacting with the public as some have tested negative lateral flow in the morning then positive half-way through their work day,” said the staff member, who wished to remain anonymous. “We’re dropping like flies, I really don’t see how they stay open for the next week.”
Many museums have postponed or cancelled events, and are rethinking their plans for the new year. One museum professional told Museums Journal that her institution’s planned reopening in January – the first time it would have been accessible to the public since before Covid – was now looking unlikely.
London’s Wellcome Collection announced today that it would close at the end of today until further notice as a result of the surge. A statement on social media said: “Due to the increasing Covid-19 risk, we will be closing to staff and visitors from Friday 17 December at 18.00 until further notice. We'll continue to monitor the situation and government advice, and keep you updated here and on our website.”
The chair of the V&A Dundee, Tim Allan, said that the museum is preparing in case the Scottish Government brings in another lockdown after Christmas. “It’s hard to gauge what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t put it past there being restrictions again,” he told the Courier newspaper. “If the number of infections rise, we could go back to closures again.”
The wave is also taking its toll on the museum workforce. Freelancers are reporting a reduction in work and enquiries. Morale is low among many workers; one professional told Museums Journal: “Two years of confusing and stressing our volunteers with rapid launch of new Covid rules and now we have cancelled our Christmas party. They’re not happy.”
Another worker said her museum had few safety measures in place and that she had faced abuse from visitors refusing to wear face coverings. “Management have not backed me up to challenge them,” she said.
Meanwhile the Science Museum in London has opened a new vaccine centre to help in the effort to provide booster shots as part of a mass vaccination drive across the UK.
Industry leaders are warning that the visitor economy will need an urgent rescue package as a result of the Omicron wave.
Bernard Donoghue, CEO of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, described how the visitor economy “is experiencing closure by a thousand cancellations” as the new variant takes hold. “This is stealth collapse, effectively sanctioned by government but without the fiscal support to protect and sustain our tourism, culture, performing arts, heritage and hospitality industries,” he tweeted.
In a letter to the prime minister this week, London mayor Sadiq Khan urged the government to come forward with “an immediate package of support for the culture, retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors” in the city in light of the new restrictions and the worsening impact of Omicron.
Describing how transport usage had dropped by 26% within in a week in central London, the letter said: “Retail, hospitality, leisure, cultural businesses and night time venues were banking on pre-Christmas sales after an extremely challenging and volatile 20 months. We currently face a ‘worst of all worlds’ whereby businesses are being very adversely affected; but without the benefit of support that existed during the previous total and partial lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.”
Creative UK, the body that represents the UK's creative industries, has called for urgent financial support for businesses and freelancers, reintroduction of the emergency 5% VAT rate, and reassurance that cancellations due to Omicron are covered by the government's insurance scheme for live events.
Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, said museums and galleries must be included in any new support measures.
She said: “The new Covid restrictions are already having an adverse impact on museums and galleries across the UK. The festive season is a critical time of year for income generation and many institutions are already seeing a drop off in attendance and cancellations of bookings and events in the run up to Christmas. All this means that this will be very challenging winter for museums on top of an extremely difficult 20 months dealing with the impact of the pandemic.
“If the fall in visitor numbers continues into the new year as the public remain cautious about being in enclosed public spaces, or if further lockdowns are imposed, museums and galleries will need emergency funding to ensure their survival. Museums must be included in any new measures to support the hospitality industry.
“The MA will continue to make the case for appropriate support from government throughout the ongoing crisis. We are also urging members to contact us with any concerns or new information about the impact of the latest wave of Covid so that we can advocate as effectively as possible on the sector’s behalf.”