Covid, furlough and creative businesses  

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Covid, furlough and creative businesses  

White wall with the outline of a facemask and text beneath it that reads "COVID-19"
© hoto by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

By Orian Brook
Dave O’Brien
Mark Taylor


In this post, Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor use data from the Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey to look at the use of the furlough scheme in the cultural sector and the impact this has had on employment.

The Covid-19 pandemic, as we have shown in previous posts, had a negative impact on employment in key parts of the cultural sector. In this article we look at redundancies and the government’s support for the furlough scheme in the cultural sector. We find that: 

  • Furlough was vital to protect jobs in the cultural and creative industries 
  • At the start of the pandemic, almost 70% of performing and visual arts organisations reported staff on furlough  
  • There were key differences across the creative industries, with sectors such as publishing having much lower levels of furloughed workers compared with film and television or the performing arts 
  • The high take-up of the furlough scheme by creative businesses suggests a policy success. However, the complexities of employment and work in the creative sector, especially the high numbers of freelancers who were not protected by the furlough scheme, will require tailored and specific support in the future.  

What is the BICS? 

For this analysis we’re using data from the Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey (BICS)1, a data set that, in Wave 24, was re-named the Business Insights and Conditions Survey. This survey collects data every 2 weeks, using an online questionnaire from a sample of just under 40,000 businesses. It has been running since April 2020, asking questions about a range of business issues, including finances, workforce, and trading confidence. More information about the BICS is available here 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) classifies this data set as ‘experimental’ and there are many reasons to be cautious about it. For example, it is voluntary, depending on the goodwill of businesses to complete the survey questions. It does, however, offer a unique insight into businesses’ experiences over the past 16 months.  

The ONS has been reporting BICS findings by industrial sector. This has been incredibly useful in getting a picture of the UK economy during the past year. However, there have been limitations in terms of understanding the experience of cultural and creative industries.  

 These limitations exist for three reasons. First, cultural and creative businesses and organisations are included in two separate industrial sectors in the ONS reporting: information and communication; and arts, entertainment and recreation -. This means that we don’t have a single indicator for the sector. Second, businesses and organisations that are not cultural and creative are also included in these two industrial sectors. An obvious example is that betting shops, golf courses, and gyms are included in the ‘arts, entertainment and recreation’ category.  

 A final point is about details for specific sectors. We’ve demonstrated in previous analysis of ONS Labour Force Survey (LFS) data that the impact of the pandemic has been very different for different parts of the cultural and creative sector. Whilst employment and working hours in music, performing, and visual arts has seen major reductions in jobs and hours worked, film and television occupations recovered quickly, and publishing did not suffer as many hours and job losses.  

Furlough in the cultural and creative industries  

Here we present, for the first time, findings from the BICS that are specific to the cultural and creative sectors. Figure 1 shows the % furloughed across all creative industries, and in the economy overall (in a thick grey line). They are placed together on the same chart, for ease of comparison. Figure 2 presents charts for each individual creative industry, against a backdrop showing the level of lockdown restrictions, from highest to lowest. This allows us to show how the levels of the furlough relative to the levels of Covid related restrictions.   

Figure 1: % staff furloughed by creative sector 

Source: Authors analysis, BICS Survey, weighted percentage of staff furloughed per two-week wave, averaged by month  

Three sectors - performing and visual arts, museums and galleries, and film and television are immediately striking. We’ve placed them towards the top of Figure 2, highlighted the trends in red, and compared them with the average across the economy in black.  They had very high proportions of furloughed staff, over 80% in performing and visual arts and over 60% in museums and galleries, at the beginning of the pandemic. This is a significantly higher proportion than the average across the rest of the economy, which was just over 20%, despite including sectors such as hospitality which we know were severely affected by pandemic measures. 

Figure 2: % staff furloughed by creative sector and Covid restrictions


Source: Authors analysis, BICS Survey, weighted percentage staff furloughed per two-week wave averaged by month 

What is also noticeable about performing and visual arts and museums and galleries is their slow return to ‘normal’. In the last waves of the BICS, when furlough was coming to an end, we can see how performing arts had almost 30% and museums and galleries had over 10% of the workforce on furlough, even as pandemic restrictions were eased and ended, whereas other sectors had only 2% of the workforce furloughed.  

The impact of the pandemic on film and television and publishing is less dramatic than for performing and visual arts and museums, although still on average higher than the rest of the economy, and there was a spike in furlough for film and television at the start of 2021. For publishing, as other analysis has indicated, companies did not see the same levels of impact as those industries that engage physical audiences or work on film and television sets.  

Alongside the Culture Recovery Fund, the furlough scheme was designed to protect key parts of the cultural sector during the periods of the most severe lockdown restrictions. However, we know from other sources that there were still job losses. The question facing the sector, as the furlough scheme has ended and as the cultural sector cautiously faces new uncertainties, is whether the jobs protected under the scheme will still be safe. Research from the Museums Association, for example, has already sounded the alarm about redundancies in key roles.  

At the same time, we know that furlough was not well suited to the freelance, project-based, workers that constitute much of the performing arts. Whilst we should acknowledge the importance of government support for furloughed creative workers, sector support organisations have made it clear that many freelance and self-employed creatives were left with little specific support. Future policy, therefore, will still need a more tailored response to meet the specific needs of a recovering creative sector.  

This work was produced using statistical data from ONS. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. 

This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

This research is part of a larger-scale programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.

Published: 2022
Resource type: Research