While the pandemic continues to rage across much of Europe, the United States, Brazil and India, thankfully things are calming down in the United Kingdom. Time will tell as to whether this is the start of a long period of remission or merely an interregnum between the second and third waves.
One of the key factors behind the good news appears to be the vaccination programme. This might be slightly illusory, since the proportion of the population that has received the requisite two doses is still very small. However, the government is vocal in its belief that it can deliver second doses to around half of the population over the next few months.
Even so, some of the plans involving theatres appear to be high risk. To start with, from 17 May it may be possible for venues to stage productions indoors once again. Indeed, a number of theatres are champing at the bit, planning to welcome audiences on that date, even though when the 'roadmap' was originally announced this was an earliest possible date, not a guarantee. That was before Boris Johnson decided that “dates not data” should be the irreversible mantra.
The major concern is that, as was the case for that brief period in December which led to many thousands of deaths in the three-month lockdown, social distancing has been sacrificed to the expediency of the economy.
While no Broadway show is likely to open in the next five or six months, New York is beginning to welcome audiences at smaller venues. However, they are restricting capacity to 25%. At that level, it is possible to keep audience members 6 imperial feet apart i.e. complying with the common measure for social distancing.
By way of contrast, in England, the government has deemed that 50% of capacity is permissible. Even using the more questionable 1m measure, it is impossible to get in more than around one third of a normal size audience. In simple terms, this means that anyone attending a theatre is putting themselves in danger, if the scientists are to be trusted. Many might be willing to take this chance, especially those who have received two vaccines and quite possibly a significant proportion of people who have at least received one.
Ironically, the first UK venue that is likely to operate (legally) at full capacity is a theatre. It may have passed some culture lovers by, but the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield is staging the world Snooker Championships in a few weeks’ time.
Having listened to an interview with an executive from the venue, the plans are complicated but, in principle, the intention is that they will ramp up audiences at various stages of the competition until it hits 100% for the final. This will be the acid test and could be corrosive.
It may be instructive to contrast this with the attitude taken by the England Cricket Board. Their sport takes place outdoors and the current fashionable roadmap has plans for 25% capacity from the middle of May and 50% from 21 June. That seems a more mature and realistic prospect, although once again social distancing will cease to apply, albeit outdoors. Rather than requiring any kind of vaccine passport, the expectation is that each audience member will be expected to provide some kind of proof that they have taken a recent test which has proved negative.
This is likely to be a way forward for theatres as well. It will certainly offer a degree of comfort but is hardly a 100% guarantee. In particular, nobody seems clear about whether they would accept the dangerously unreliable lateral flow tests or the very expensive PCR equivalents. At Britain’s most popular chemist, at the moment PCR tests cost £120, which would more than double the price of almost any theatre ticket. Either way, there are likely to be a number of false results, more so with lateral flow.
Without wishing to suggest that anyone would kill to watch a major snooker event, one wonders how the authorities are planning to prevent fraud. This could be a wider issue for society, if testing becomes the gold standard for admission to entertainment spots including theatres.
Imagine a situation where an individual was planning to take the family to a celebrate a night out at Hamilton and discovered, a couple of days before, that they had received a positive test result but felt healthy. He or she might feel tempted either to buy a negative test result on what will soon be a burgeoning black market or ask a healthy friend or relation to take a test.
It will be fascinating to see how the story pans out over the next few months, but there is still far too strong a possibility that its ending will be closer to tragedy than comedy.