Although the government remains in denial about the devastating impact of the Omicron variant of coronavirus on the NHS and leisure sector, those running theatres understand the implications all too well.
While they are permitted to open at full capacity, admittedly requiring visitors to wear masks, the Christmas season 2021 is hardly the same as that only two years ago. According to reports during the week, almost half of West End shows have been forced to close temporarily due to illness suffered by actors, other staff members or their close contacts.
Even the lucky few that remained open discovered that theatregoers did not line up with bullish backbenchers egging on the Prime Minister to save the economy by piling up the bodies of their constituents. Instead, many theatre types being discerning and intelligent decided that a trip into town to visit crammed theatres, sharing space that might well be poorly ventilated with hundreds of people, some of whom would inevitably be suffering from the virus, was a bad idea.
With Omicron numbers doubling every couple of days, even negative tests for the virus prove little, while having been double jabbed several months before appears to make little difference either.
The consequence is that, yet again, theatres are faced with high expenses and little or no income. This column has quoted Micawber’s principle too many times to repeat it but, put simply, if expenses exceed income, then eventually money will run out. That day could be coming soon for far too many theatres.
Like the best of poker players, Rishi Sunak keeps a straight face throughout but earlier this week felt compelled to dish out what he estimates to be £1 billion to support hospitality and leisure. The Cultural Recovery Fund has been supplemented to the tune of £30 million, not to be sneezed at but hardly generous either in the context of an industry that enjoys an annual turnover estimated at £70 billion.
Regardless of the quantum, this is not the most helpful approach to those who are in desperate need of immediate cash support. There are additional funds to be allocated by local authorities but these will undoubtedly be in great demand and it is unclear whether they will be available to those that are entitled to claim against the Cultural Recovery Fund. In any event, there is a limit of £6,000, which will be great news for small organisations but won’t stretch very far in the context of a West End theatre.
From past experience, anyone involved will realise that typically it takes 6 to 12 months for Arts Council England to dish out any money allocated to this fund. By then, many theatres could have gone to the wall.
This worry is particularly pertinent now, given that larger theatres were only supported with loans last time around and many will be carrying levels of debt that are unsustainable unless full-scale reopening is possible in the very near future and audience members feel safe.
This attitude of flinging limited amounts of money at problems and then boasting about it is also imprecisely directed to say the very least. That has become obvious with all of the stories about scandals where people have defrauded the government over furlough, loans etc., not to mention their pals who, at the extreme, have allegedly provided substandard materials under overpriced contracts at the expense of the taxpayer.
While some theatres will undoubtedly be kept afloat for a little longer by what is colloquially referred to as a sticking plaster, this will not help freelancers who have been forgotten yet again, nor will it support individuals who work in the entertainment industry and will find themselves out on a limb, at best earning virtually nothing or, if they are on zero hours, contracts even less.
There might also be some irony, given the amount of money plunged into the furlough scheme, if we discover that theatres are forced to lay off even more employees. The obvious answer to this would be for Rishi Sunak to reintroduce a targeted furlough scheme addressed to those sectors that are currently being hamstrung by the latest iteration of the virus.
Given the welcome news that Omicron may be a little less deadly than Delta (still going strong even though its PR department is clearly on Xmas break), the Prime Minister might be waiting a few more days to allow the introduction of a full-scale lockdown of theatres and possibly much else.
When the inevitable happens, Mr Sunak will then almost certainly be obliged to reintroduce furlough, together with other supporting measures to keep us going through until spring, by which time we may once again, like moles emerging from hibernation, blink into the light and hope that there will still be solvent theatres to produce plays and employ thespians.