Museums, galleries and heritage sites are facing a difficult start to the year after the Omicron surge of coronavirus led to significant drops in attendance and income over the festive season.
Museums were hit by a wave of cancellations over Christmas and New Year and some were forced to close completely due to staff shortages after the variant triggered a steep rise in Covid-19 infections. Visitor venues have also had to adapt to a range of new restrictions introduced across the UK to curb the spread of the virus.
In England, face coverings are obligatory in indoor public spaces and Covid passes must be shown for events of more than 500 people indoors or 4,000 people outdoors.
Similar measures are in place in the devolved nations, along with more stringent restrictions. In Northern Ireland, the rule of six has been reintroduced in hospitality settings for people from different households, while two-metre social distancing has also been brought back in some settings.
Wales has also brought back two-metre social distancing, and only six people are allowed to meet in public places. Indoor events are capped at 30 people and outdoor events are limited to 50.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, public events have been limited to up to 100 people at indoor standing events, up to 200 people at indoor seated events, and up to 500 people at either seated or standing outdoor events. Table service is required in hospitality settings where alcohol is served.
The UK Government and devolved administrations have announced new emergency funding to help cultural and heritage organisations affected by the crisis – but museum bodies are warning that the rescue packages may not be enough if the crisis continues further into the new year.
Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, said: “The Covid restrictions have already had an adverse impact on museums and galleries across the UK. Many museums saw a big drop in attendance over the festive season, with cancellations of bookings and events over Christmas and the New Year. Some museums were forced to close their doors altogether because of lack of staff.
“This means that it will be a very challenging winter for museums on top of an extremely difficult 20 months dealing with the impact of the pandemic. While we are grateful for the additional funding from government it will not cover the ongoing loss of income.
“If the fall in visitor numbers continues into 2022 as the public remain cautious about being in enclosed public spaces, or if further lockdowns are imposed, further emergency funding will be needed.”
Emergency funding for culture and heritage
Latest support announced over the Christmas period
The government has made a further £30m available and extended the application window for emergency funding through the Culture Recovery Fund to support museums, cinemas, theatres and heritage organisations through the impact of the Omicron variant this winter. Distributed by Arts Council England, the fund aims to provide emergency funding awards to organisations that were financially sustainable before Covid-19 but are now at imminent risk of failure.
Generally, grants of between £25,000 and £3m (£1m for for-profit organisations) are available.
Permission to apply requests must be made by midday on 18 January, and applications can be submitted until 4 February.
Details of a financial rescue package worth £65m for culture and major events have been confirmed by culture secretary Angus Robertson. The funding includes £10m for freelancers and £1.7m for museums, galleries and heritage.
Creative Scotland’s Cancellation Fund for Creative Freelancers opens for applications on Thursday 6 January.
Details of how the other funding will be distributed have not yet been confirmed.
The government has announced a £5.25m Cultural Winter Stability Fund, which will provide critical support for cultural organisations that have been and continue to be negatively affected by the impact of the pandemic and may be at serious risk of closure or job losses without further support.
The funding will be open to arts organisations, museums, libraries and independent cinemas, and will provide emergency funding, in the form of grants up to £100,000, for the period from 1 October to the end of March 2022. Details on how to apply for the funding are due to be announced shortly.
In addition, £60m of business support funding has been announced to support businesses materially affected by the new protections that were introduced in Wales on 27 December.
If the Omicron wave continues, the Welsh Government said it will look to the UK Government to introduce economic support schemes, such as furlough, as it did earlier in the pandemic.
In December, two funding strands for the heritage sector were announced as part of the Department for Communities’ wider Covid Recovery Programme.
Distributed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the funding will support organisations and individuals working in the heritage sector in Northern Ireland.
The Covid Recovery Programme for Heritage Organisations aims to reduce or remove heritage organisations’ financial operating deficits that have arisen as a result of the pandemic in the 2021-2022 financial year.
Grants from £2,000 up to £50,000 are available. In exceptional circumstances, grants of over £50,000 are also available. Applications close on 21 January.
The Covid Recovery Programme for Heritage Individuals will provide support to self-employed and freelance individuals working across the heritage sector. Grants of £2,000 are available and applications close on 28 January.