Whatever criticisms anyone may have about Boris Johnson and his merry band, nobody could deny their expertise when it comes to delivering mixed messages.
Last week’s column noted that, within a single document supposedly setting out the operation of the new tier system with clarity, there were insuperable contradictions. It appears from press releases issued by an assortment of interested organisations, the government has decided that theatres in Tiers 1 and 2 can reopen for indoor performances at 50% capacity. As its own document demonstrates, this is flying in the face of an underlying principle.
It was established at least six months ago that in order to maintain even the half-price version of 'social distancing' referred to as 1m plus, the maximum capacity was between 30% and 35%. Therefore, using simple numbers, the government is now permitting 50% more people into theatres than it regards as safe. This is without entering into a separate debate about why London, a city that currently has very high levels of coronavirus, is not in Tier 3, which would mean that theatres had to remain closed.
Ignoring moral and ethical questions, a policy that seems to be a speciality at the moment, this is arguably good news for the panto business since theatres operating at 50% occupancy will lose considerably less money than they would have done operating at 30%. As a welcome consequence, more employed and self-employed workers in the industry will receive some much-needed income, even if running at a loss does no favours to producers, who will be whittling away their fast-diminishing reserves or building up even greater debts slightly more slowly.
This could go one of two ways. There is a strong possibility that, once the government decides to ignore the science in favour of the politics, it might as well go the whole hog and open up theatres completely, whatever the risk to the health of workers and members of the paying public. That view might be supported by a separate development, announced like so much at the last minute. Yesterday, our policymakers decided to abandon quarantine for certain performing arts professionals coming into the UK from high risk countries commencing at 4AM tomorrow.
The details are unclear, but, to quote from the Daily Mail, “The Department said the exemption for performing arts professionals and sports stars would help to ensure 'that industries which require specific, high talent individuals who rely on international connections can continue to complete their work'."
Quite how this will transform the theatre is uncertain. Even with 50% capacity, shows will lose money and if they import stars from overseas, they will just lose more. In addition, allowing actors and other professionals from countries where the pandemic is raging to bypass the protection of quarantine could put their fellows at risk. If these two plans backfire, the pandemic might get offended and bite back with a vengeance, forcing long-term closures in the first quarter of 2021 and possibly beyond.
We have hope in the form of the vaccine, although Matt Hancock’s belief that 30 million people will be fully vaccinated by the end of April seems far-fetched to say the least. There is a much stronger possibility that it will take at least a year to get all of those inoculations completed and possibly longer. Even then, if we assume an overall efficacy rate of 70%, then anyone sitting in a thousand-seat theatre can expect that 300 people could be infected and, if only half of those present have received the jab, one or more of 650 happy theatregoers might be unwittingly passing on the deadly virus.
We are currently on the brink of very exciting developments and one has to hope that a combination of factors will help to protect the industry that we love from imminent demise. In reality, some proper short- and medium-term support from the government is desperately needed, in the form of sensible, coherent advice regarding safe occupancy levels, further grants and the provision of insurance against overnight COVID closures.
Having said all of that, we have been holding our breath for over eight months now, so only the most optimistic will imagine that Oliver Dowden, Rishi Sunak & Co. have got thespians on their Christmas gift list.