Monday 23 March 2020

The Five Stages

It feels like grief, doesn’t it? As we come to understand everything that we seem to have lost in the space of a week. The jobs that disappeared overnight. The cancellations of events we were looking forward to and had worked hard to put on. The places that we took for granted and now can’t visit. And the people that we saw when went there. The casual chats. The smiles. The catching up. The promises to be in touch.

I’ve definitely been going through the stages of that grief.

Denial. Well, the government did that for us with their ‘herd immunity’ bollocks. Still, I think we all had an idea that they viewed us as cattle. However, it does feel like we were all kidding ourselves. Holding off cancelling things, just in case it all blew over.

Bargaining: Again, the government did that for us – stupidly. They struck a bargain with the UK that we knew couldn’t be kept. They told cafes, theatres, cinemas and pubs that they could stay open on the understanding that no-one actually went there. They put business owners in an impossible position morally and financially. And what it worse they gave us false hope. A hope that maybe if everyone was just a bit sensible, we could keep calm and carry on.

I’m a cockeyed optimist but after the last few years, even I didn’t think we could rely on the entire Great British Public to be sensible. There was always going to be a hardcore minority of idiots who were going to ruin it for the rest of us.

Of course, the vast majority of people did and will do the right thing. Including many people who run venues in my beloved Leeds. My inbox filled with heartfelt apologies for inconvenience from theatre spaces, clubs, bars, restaurants and those who have been at the heart of a burgeoning and uplifting arts scene in my glorious hometown. People I personally know have given everything to provide a bit of joy and entertainment – time, energy, money, love, themselves.

And so, as I slipped into the depression stage, I cried for them. I cried for the fragile new businesses who were scrambling to salvage something. I cried for the stoics who were repurposing their premises and workforces to be kind and useful in this hour of need.

And then, via the blessing/curse that is social media, came another wave of sadness. Overnight, it really felt like everyone I knew and loved had lost their livelihoods. Actors, musicians, writers, directors, producers, stage technicians, camera-operators, radio presenters, comedians… The list goes on and on. And almost all of them are freelancers, like me.

Look, freelancers are used to things being a bit up and down. Things get cancelled, funding doesn’t materialise, people change their minds. And we try to mitigate that risk as much as we can. I think every freelancer has  a series of measures they can put in place to lower their overheads when money is tight. We’re a superstitious bunch who try not jinx contracts before they are signed by talking about them. We try not to spend any money that we haven’t invoiced for. We are cautious in our optimism.
However, NOBODY could have had an action plan in place to anticipate the havoc that Covid-19 is having on our industry. Nobody can be prepared for every booking to disappear from the diary with absolutely no guarantee of when and if they will reappear.

And so, when the government (quite rightly) guaranteed the incomes of the employed who had been effected by the pandemic but chose not to extend the same safety net to freelancers, I hit the next stage of grief. Burning, glowing, red, hot ANGER.

And that anger was not soothed by seeing government ministers claiming it was ‘too complex’ to offer any serious financial help to freelancers. It’s not at all complex. The government has all the information they need at their fingertips via HMRC. With three years of tax returns, they can calculate the average annual income of any freelancer and offer the same deal as has been offered to those who are PAYE. Subject to the same limits.

And what will happen if they do not offer that help? It is currently beyond the limits of my tiny mind to comprehend what we will lose if we do not support freelancers at this time. The work, the entertainment, the creativity that this country is lucky to have. But those are wishy-washy leftie ideals. So, let me appeal to the Tories in a language that they claim to understand - money.

The creative industries contributed £111.7 billion of value to the UK economy in 2018. That is £127 million per hour. (source)

With an estimated 2,040,000 jobs - 75 per cent of them outside London - the UK's creative industries are developing new jobs faster than other sectors despite record employment in the UK economy as a whole. (source)

The Office for National Statistics said that the Film & TV industry saved the UK economy from stagnating in amongst the Brexit bullshit in 2019. (source)

The Creative Industries rely on freelancers with their flexibility and specialised skill sets. We lose that at our peril. We already have skills gaps in our industry and that will be exacerbated if we lose people because their work becomes financially unsustainable – even for a short time.

And so, I will not be slipping into the final stage of grief; Acceptance.

I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that freelancers and the self-employed in this country are valued in the same way as other workers. I will use my platform to call out this iniquity and to pressure those in power to put it right. I will not accept that this is the way it has to be.

Because when this is all over – and it will be over – the UK’s best chance for recovery both financially and emotionally is the creative industries. But there is no creativity or industry without our freelancers.