It is amazing how quickly the collective memory can be altered. By government edict, the coronavirus pandemic was effectively forgotten if not eliminated last year. Did this mean that nobody got sick any more, hospitals returned to normal and fatalities disappeared overnight? Not a chance.

As anyone interested in theatre will have realised, there were constant problems last winter with performances being cancelled, openings delayed and audience members having to cry off at the last minute.

Although the figures are hardly well publicised now, at the last count, over 2 million people in the United Kingdom were believed to have the virus and hundreds still die each week.

Converted into the kinds of numbers that we understand, the infection rate of one in 30 of the population means that if you visit a pub theatre, on average you will probably be crammed in with two people who are feeling a bit unwell but didn’t want to miss a night out. Depending upon your view of scale, a visit to a top musical is likely to leave you prey to the germs spread by somewhere in the region of 40 to 50 sick people.

As if that wasn’t enough, we keep hearing about an impending flu epidemic. While this currently seems to be more in the imagination than the bloodstream, it could add to our woes as winter sets in.

Sorry if all of this sounds a little bit alarmist for some tastes, like “project fear”, but perhaps it should. From a personal perspective, as a result of long COVID that may well have been contracted on a theatre trip, this critic has been unable to visit a theatre since March 2020 and still spends more time feeling under the weather rather than fully healthy.

When coronavirus was still officially a problem, theatres took heroic steps to protect staff, performers and audience members partly as a public service but also to remain open and persuade potentially reluctant theatregoers that they could spend a safe evening at a venue. Reports from friends suggest that all of the protections have disappeared without trace. Many might applaud this new openness, since it saves time and hassle.

Strangely, a random online visit to theatres in New York suggests that Broadway and off-Broadway producers have taken the opposite approach. Although the official mask mandate laid down by the city was abandoned during the summer, theatres are still taking a cautious approach.

Some require all customers to mask up throughout their visits, while others take a slightly more liberal approach designating a large proportion of performances as mask-only, while allowing a free-for-all on other nights. Even then, visitors are urged in the strongest terms to wear masks.

When you speak to New Yorkers, they are aghast at the prospect of a trip to London during which they might be trapped in a tube carriage with those who may be spreading the virus with not a mask in sight.

Similar considerations apply to a night out in a packed theatre. This could be a major problem for the industry, since almost the only people willing and able to pay top dollar for premium priced tickets tend to be holidaymakers from across the Atlantic.

Many readers might be as baffled about how we got here as this contributor, given that basic precautions against coronavirus really are not particularly onerous. Is wearing a mask for a couple of hours that difficult, particularly if it means that you will not have to spend the next week or two in bed suffering from either COVID-19 or flu?

While some theatres have spent a great deal of money and effort in improving ventilation, others could still follow suit, although given tough economic times, that might now be a big ask.

Perhaps the most inexplicable decision is the abandonment of any requirement for people to determine whether they are suffering from this highly communicable disease and, for those that do establish that they have tested positive, an obligation to stay at home until the symptoms have gone away and received a negative test result.

Bearing in mind that virus levels are ludicrously high this autumn, there must be grave concern about what happens during the winter. We just have to hope that luck is on our side and the panto season thrives, Christmas musicals break all box office records and someone decides to fill all those dark theatres in the early months of 2023.

Stay safe!