In the United Kingdom, COVID-19 is so yesterday that it has practically been eliminated, or that is what the government would like us to believe.
Quite bizarrely, monkeypox has become the press’s favourite illness, even though at the moment fewer people in the United Kingdom have caught the pox than die every week and quite possibly every day from coronavirus.
For reasons that are quite obvious, when he is desperate to save his skin, Boris Johnson has chosen the approach favoured by his role model, Donald Trump. As Trump so memorably declared at the start of the pandemic, the only reason why numbers look high is because we are testing too many people.
This spring, the UK stopped free testing and closed down most other avenues so, as a result, we are being conned into believing that the virus has disappeared. That is a little bit of an exaggeration since, at the last count, close to 1 million people in the United Kingdom were still sick.
It may be anecdotal, but a surprisingly large proportion of this critic’s circle of friends have recently fallen ill and been seriously afflicted for at least two weeks and sometimes longer. Typically, there have been flu symptoms but also bronchitis, headaches and general fatigue.
Bringing things right up-to-date, the New Zealand cricket team has today lost its captain to the forgotten virus, while theatres also regularly struggling with COVID-related staffing issues both on and off stage.
We can of course take the government’s attitude, which is that if it doesn’t affect us, it doesn’t matter. That could be a bad case of short termism, since it is still estimated between 10% and 30% of all who catch the virus will eventually end up with long COVID. After two years of intermittent illness including a flare-up this week, I can affirm that this is not a desirable outcome.
The virus is also causing almost as big a split amongst prospective theatregoers as the one that has riven the Conservative Party. As actress Liz Carr so eloquently pleaded at the Oscars, we should have some consideration for those whose health might be compromised by a night out in a crowded auditorium. Her suggestion was that all theatres should offer some mask-only performances for those who need them for their health or just prefer them because they feel safer.
She would be far better off living in New York City. Here is an example of the current code on Broadway and beyond.
“All attendees will be required to show proof of vaccination. In addition, a mask must be worn over the nose and mouth at all times inside the building and theatre. Attendees also must wear a surgical or KN95 (or similar) level mask, and if you need one, we will provide it at the point of entry.”
Translating into English, a KN95 level mask equates to a FFP2 or medical grade mask.
Although the current regulations are not enforced by law, they are laid down and have recently been renewed by the Broadway League and operated by all theatres in the city. League president Charlotte St. Martin stated that, “as always, the safety and security of our cast, crew, and audience has been our top priority. By maintaining our audience masking requirement through at least the month of June, we intend to continue that track record of safety for all, despite the Omicron subvariants.”
This is very different from the laissez-faire British approach.
One consequence is that tourists from the Big Apple who try to visit a London theatre might be in for a big shock, having expected a safe environment and found one that they might view as implicitly dangerous. This could hit sales, especially those of premium priced tickets.
In case this might seem like too much of a scare story, the definitive book on the pandemic, Preventable by Devi Sridhar, has just been published and is a real page turner. She is alarmed by current UK trends and continues to have concerns about the way in which COVID-19 will develop, even though its fangs have been partly negated by vaccines. Even worse, she sees a likelihood that another, possibly more deadly pandemic might be just around the corner.
The likelihood is that the current situation featuring relatively high levels of infection will continue through the summer, with numbers slowly dropping unless the variants currently spreading across the States hit us with a vengeance.
If, as many have predicted, new waves and new variants arrive later in the year, then theatres may be obliged to rethink mask and other hygiene policy in a hurry.
The question for them is whether requiring patrons to wear a mask will increase or reduce occupancy levels. The most sensible solution might be to introduce a mix of mask only, masks recommended and free for all to please as many people as possible.