Illegal fireworks warning as lockdown fuels boom in pyrotechnic sales

People are being warned about potentially illegal fireworks by the industry’s biggest trade body as it revealed a boom in sales had been fuelled by Bonfire Night lockdown curbs.

While the latest Covid-19 measures coming into force for England on November 5 have driven sales for some UK firms, curbs on traditional big public displays have left many seasoned show operators facing a bleak 12 months.

Covid restrictions mean many spectacular events have been cancelled, with some skilled pyrotechnics show-runners reporting a 90% drop in turnover.

But Steve Raper, chairman of the British Fireworks Association (BFA) which represents retailers, said those same curbs had driven “a massive spike in sales” as part of a shift to “back-garden displays”.

He also sounded a health and safety warning to people turning to online retailers to get fireworks, which might even be illegal under the UK’s tight explosives regulations.

Mr Raper, a consultant with Bright Star Fireworks, in Melmerby, North Yorkshire, said more people seemed to be buying the “traditional box of fireworks”.

Coronavirus – Wed Nov 4, 2020
Pyrotechnics still in their boxes at a warehouse in the West Midlands (Jacob King/PA)

The rise in sales started as soon as the UK’s autumn fireworks season began on October 15 and the relaxation of sales licensing rules, he added.

Mr Raper said there had been a “robust start” to trade, with people “letting their hair down” and keen to mark Bonfire Night and Diwali, the Indian festival of lights on November 14.

He said the Government negotiations last month around Greater Manchester’s earlier Tier 3 restrictions, and Wales’s firebreak lockdown rules, had played a part.

A suggestion by Manchester’s regional mayor Andy Burnham that fireworks could be banned as part of a deal with Government to remain under Tier 2 controls sparked the surge, Mr Raper said.

“Our phones lit up,” he said.

“People in Manchester were calling up immediately saying ‘we want fireworks’.

“It was the toilet-roll effect, people were panic-buying.”

Then the announcement of Wales’s two-week lockdown had a similar effect for retailers there.

Mr Raper knew of two stores in Cardiff and Swansea who had a “600%-980% increase” in fireworks sales, based on last year’s numbers.

He said: “We’ve been driven by a massive spike in sales.”

However, independent smaller-scale retailers, such as those who run pop-up shops just for the fireworks sales period which runs from October 15 to November 10, as well as selected dates around New Year, Diwali and Chinese New Year, were now suffering as they were deemed non-essential under the new lockdown guidance.

He said an unforeseen impact on the industry was customers who bought illegal fireworks “being shipped in from places like Poland and the Czech Republic”.

Mr Raper said many of these illicit fireworks were filling the gaps in demand, but customers were often unaware they could be in breach of the UK’s extremely tight regulations on ordnance.

“Many do not conform to noise standards, and the instructions aren’t in English so you won’t know fuse timings, for example, and that could cause a spike in injuries,” Mr Raper said.

Bonfire Night
Fireworks on the River Mersey in past years (PA)

He also branded recent incidents of anti-social behaviour with fireworks, such as those seen in the West Midlands where cars and police officers have been targeted, as “abhorrent”.

“Many of the fireworks being used in those situations will be illegal, brought on the internet.

“Because of Covid and lockdown, a lot of people have moved from buying fireworks over the counter at a trusted retailer to getting them online.”

Mr Raper said the problem was not new, citing a 2019 example where a flight shipment of 20kgs of illegal fireworks was uncovered at an unnamed airport in England during a routine customs check.

He added it was critical people sourced fireworks from established UK retailers and followed the BFA’s online fireworks code of conduct to ensure safe handling.

Tom Smith, the secretary of the British Pyrotechnists’ Association (BPA), which represents the majority of the major display companies, said only 5% of the planned big fireworks shows had taken place this year.

“If it went on until November next year, I can see 80% of display companies giving up,” he said.

“The game we’re in, realistically it will be one of the last things to return to normality.”

Coronavirus – Wed Nov 4, 2020
Chris Pearce of Jubilee Fireworks in Kingswinford, West Midlands (Jacob King/PA)

Chris Pearce, managing director Jubilee Fireworks based in Kingswinford, West Midlands, said: “It’s been a disastrous year to be quite honest. We anticipate a fall in turnover of 80%-90%.

“We lost a majority of our shows and the summer was equally bad.”

The firm had not anticipated the timing of the second wave, adding “the November season is pretty well dead for us”.

He said the firm, which makes 80% of its business by putting on professional displays, had done five this year compared to 200 in a normal year.

Mr Pearce added it would “require some very careful management” of finances to survive the next year, adding there were “bound to be casualties” in the trade.

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