When theatres closed in the middle of March 2020, nobody could have expected that they would still be on their knees two years later.
Last month, without any apparent scientific support or justification, the Prime Minister decided to declare the coronavirus over and done with. Following very reasonable logic, he then removed all of the laws that had helped to keep so many citizens safe.
The big question is what will happen next? If the gamble pays off then theatres is going to be packed with delighted punters, none of whom will feel the need to wear masks, and there will be no adverse consequences. That seems a big stretch given that, at the time when the restrictions were literally outlawed, the ONS survey showed that 3 million people would have tested positive for coronavirus i.e. approximately 5% of the population. Expressed in theatre terms, if you filled in a venue with 1,000 ticket holders, 50 of them would be ill. That is quite terrifying.
This ignores several hundred thousand people who are suffering from long COVID and the clinically vulnerable. Even Boris Johnson admits that the latter group have every reason to feel hard done by and may be in imminent danger.
The winter was always likely to be the worst time for the spread of COVID-19 and therefore there is cause to feel a degree of optimism about what might happen over the next few months. After all, last summer, numbers died down to a significant degree, allowing us all to return to a semblance of normality.
What do we actually need in order for theatres to thrive?
First, it would help if those both on stage and behind-the-scenes were not falling ill with a worrying degree of regularity. It is all very well for the government to permit anyone to go to work whenever they feel like it, but spreading illness through a cast and crew is probably not the best recipe for a successful production.
Next, prospective audience members have to feel confident about going to the theatre. They also need to feel happy about their means of travelling to and from the venue, which in big cities might be a significant impediment. Now that masks are going to become far less common, a great proportion of potential theatregoers may still feel reluctant, at least until those statistics diminish considerably. That, in itself, might be tricky to ascertain given that the government is keen to ditch the ONS measures as soon as possible.
The fact that very soon anyone wishing to take a test to determine whether or not they have coronavirus will have to pay for it is going to be another issue. It will be interesting to see whether any theatres or producers are willing to splash out valuable funds to pay for tests to ensure that their workers remain safe.
Even if we can get these ducks in a line, the West End needs an extra ingredient: tourists.
Some overseas visitors might be encouraged by the news that it will no longer be mandatory to pay for expensive tests on arrival in the UK, though they are still likely to face additional costs on their return to the home country.
Those who follow the news, may also be wary of travelling from a relatively safe haven, where the powers that be are still attempting to protect them from the virus, to the contemporary equivalent of the wild West, where anything goes. There has to be an additional concern that if the Ukrainian war continues far too long, that might also put off nervous types from flying to Europe.
It would be lovely to think that by the middle of this summer, we will hardly remember the ravages of the pandemic but that doesn’t seem likely. We might at least get a lull that makes theatres feel safer period.
Even if it is the case, we must all wait to see whether a new variant comes around or next winter brings a return of widespread illness due to a previous strain.