Having callously passed all responsibility for a deadly virus that has killed millions worldwide to the people, our government has left many businesses in an impossible position.
The theatre community is likely to be in an even worse place than many others. For a long time, the position was depressingly clear. After an initial wishy-washy suggestion last March that theatres might like to close, instructions from on high became definitive as the full scale of the tragedy developed.
Theatres up and down the country were forced to close completely. This was inevitably damaging to the companies that lost their income overnight and were then given limited support, in some cases none, in their efforts to survive. Subsequently, opening was permitted with full social distancing and many protective measures required by law. This was uncommercial but relatively safe.
More recently, the guidance was updated so that theatres could open with contradictory rules which both asked them to ensure that social distancing was maintained, while at the same time allowing 50% capacity which would not permit social distancing.
While the position was characteristically muddied, there were also additional protections for all involved, in particular audience members were expected to wear masks, while many took additional steps such as keeping personal details, programming short shows without intervals and timing entries and exits to limit social contact.
The situation in New York has rarely followed London, primarily because theatres were closed for much longer. Now that they are able to reopen, managements are taking a number of different approaches to keep people safe as possible.
A good example might be the rules laid down by the producers of Springsteen on Broadway. Alongside basic hygiene, they insisted that every member of the audience aged 18 or over should provide proof that they had received two vaccinations, the second of which was no less than a couple of weeks before. Youngsters were only allowed entry on supplying a recent negative COVID test.
Following a similar line, what could easily have been a comic satire written by Sir David Hare or even a stand-up comedian, the idea of vaccination passports has led to uproar on both sides of the political spectrum. The far right is insulted by the idea that anyone should be obliged to do anything, even if it could save lives. In principle, their views might be compared with those of the gun lobby in the United States, who seemingly uphold every citizen’s right to murder every other citizen.
At the other end of the spectrum, the trendiest of lefties believe that it is unreasonable to implement a law that could disadvantage those who already have enough disadvantages.
In between is our poor Prime Minister, who could not make a decision to save his life, let alone those of his voters. As his surrogate, theatres and their managers are now in the midst of a debate that is making their work even harder.
Ignoring the ethical rights and wrongs of obliging people to get vaccinated in order to go to the theatre and banning those who are unable or unwilling to do so, a number of other issues arise.
Is it right to compel those working for your organisation, whether backstage staff, front of house crew or actors to get two vaccinations? This is the question that so many businesses are being forced to address at the moment and there may be no correct answer.
In theatres, the position could get more fraught if, for example, the star of a show either refuses to get vaccinated or demands that everyone in the company has their jabs, threatening to withdraw if their preference is not instantly followed.
There could well be serious legal ramifications if staff are prevented from working. To take an extreme example, if someone has a disability that prevents them from receiving a vaccination, one would imagine that should they be dismissed as a result, the subsequent employment tribunal might prove very expensive for the ex-employer.
Moving to the other end of the auditorium, requiring members of the public to prove vaccination status could be disastrous or, on the other hand, sell more tickets.
At the moment, it would seem very easy to fabricate “proof” that someone has had coronavirus vaccinations. In America where the theatre-loving tourists come from, all the evidence that one receives is a little bit of card and UK residents might try to use something similar.
Even electronic confirmations can probably be replicated or invented relatively easily. That is particularly the case when one thinks that security staff at theatres (an additional cost that nobody needs at this tricky commercial juncture) might have to check hundreds or thousands of individuals as they troop in to each performance, potentially turning away paying customers and presumably giving them information about how to obtain refunds.
There is no right answer here, since the alternative might be to allow infected people into a theatre, with the consequential closures, if the wonderful track and trace system, which has cost approximately 20 times the amount of money so far given to theatres, ever gets into gear.