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Euphoria, Notting Hill Carnival 2016 | Photographer: VKAMZ

Notting Hill Carnival organiser under pressure as bands pull out

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Notting Hill Carnival 2020 ‑ Go or No-go? That’s the big question carnivalists and others have been debating on social media since coronavirus lockdown began on 23 March. Right now, carnival organiser Notting Hill Carnival Limited (NHCL) is debating it too, behind firmly closed doors.

Just five days before lockdown was announced and shortly after Glastonbury was cancelled, NHCL issued a bullish statement announcing that Notting Hill Carnival would be going ahead as usual. “Planning for NHC 2020 continues to be in full swing. After recent consultation with our strategic partners, there are still no plans to cancel.”

A month later, when the mood in the country was a lot more sombre, the message from NHCL’s Powis Square HQ was much the same. Rumours had started flying on 21 April when MaKING Carnival mas band announced that, “due to the uncertainties and advice given by the experts”, it would not continue planning for NHC 2020 but instead would focus on creating “the ultimate carnival experience” in 2021.

Some mistook the band’s statement for cancellation of the whole carnival, prompting a swift response from NHCL: “Lots of misinformation circulating. NHC 2020 is not cancelled.” NHCL chief executive Matthew Phillip assured Portobello Radio, “There will be a carnival of some sort.”

But exactly what sort of carnival would be able to assure the safety of all masqueraders, pannists, revellers, spectators, residents, stall-holders and emergency services personnel? NHCL’s reassurances failed to quell the rising tide of doubt flooding social media. And on 2 May the Carnival Arts and Masquerade Foundation (CAMF), which represents a significant number of London’s mas bands, issued a statement on its Facebook page saying that most of its members wanted Carnival to be postponed until next year.

CAMF stated: “This position was reached due to serious concerns about the damaging impact of the pandemic on public health, finances, materials & services that Carnival relies on.”

NHCL said it is “aware” of CAMF’s statement, but has not responded publicly to it. Soca News understands that the organiser plans to issue a statement shortly, but is still consulting with participating groups and the Strategic Partners Group (SPG).

The SPG comprises Notting Hill Carnival’s ‘stakeholders’ – the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster City Council, the Greater London Authority, Transport for London, the London Ambulance Service, the Metropolitan Police Service and Arts Council England. Although NHCL ostensibly has the final say on whether Carnival can go ahead, in reality a serious objection on health and safety grounds by any one of the stakeholders would be enough to sink the event.

Writing in The Evening Standard on 1 May, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan predicted that after lockdown ends, “There will be no return to life as it was – instead we face a ‘new normal’… interactions will be limited and for a while there will be no larger gatherings.”

Much will depend on exactly when, and in how many stages, lockdown ends. It’s generally agreed that restrictions on ‘mass gatherings’, like carnivals, will be the very last to be lifted. Some experts believe it won’t be safe to do that until September at the earliest, but possibly not until next year. Carnivals will be under particular scrutiny because they were accused of playing a part in outbreaks of Covid-19 infections in Germany and Brazil.

Getting to Notting Hill could prove to be the biggest challenge of all. The BBC on 30 April quoted the London Strategic Co-ordination Group as saying that London Underground services would be “rapidly overwhelmed” if social distancing were to be maintained. None of this looks good for Carnival 2020.

Another powerful factor at play is public opinion. Notting Hill Carnival has always provoked strong opinions, pro and anti, and any decision to continue or cancel is bound to provoke a Twitterstorm.

Simone Anderson, who thought it had been cancelled and probably expressed many carnival-lovers’ emotions, tweeted “I knew it was going to happen but I could cry! Worst news I’ve heard all year.” The Barrowboy reckoned it was time to throw in the towel: “Just assume all major festivals will be cancelled for 2020. Miss Corona Virus will be there to check your Ass!” Eddie had an original theory: “So finally we get to the bottom of the cause of the virus. It was to stop the carnival. They’ve been trying for years”, while Nathan Caton observed, “It’s gonna be Notting Hill carnival via Zoom isn’t it? And I bet the police/local council will still find a way to unnecessarily close off some of the links!”

Gallows humour aside, there could be a risk of reputational damage to Carnival if it goes ahead while other sporting, cultural, religious and political events are called off. A change.org petition is calling on the government “to cancel the Notting Hill Carnival and the Wireless festival” and accuses the events’ organisers of “putting profit before health”. One commentator tweeted angrily, “So, rather than protect the health and safety of the public, you want to carry on like nothing is happening. Stop chatting shit. You’ll be forced to cancel.”

CAMF’s statement seems to indicate that many of its members have similar reservations about the wisdom of holding a carnival in the year of Covid-19. The Foundation’s statement concluded: “Members expressed strong ethical reservations regarding the appropriateness of participation, highlighting negative press & criticism by the general public if Mas Bands were to engage in such a major celebration event so soon after or during afflictions & fatalities caused by the pandemic.”

The current situation is unprecedented; there are no rules to follow. However, the lesson of the past four months is that the best results have been achieved by decision-makers who were both quick and bold. That places a heavy burden on the leaders of Notting Hill Carnival today.

  • The Wireless Festival has now been cancelled for 2020.
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