Two articles released this morning seem to signal a drive within Whitehall to get theatres working without social distancing.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden penned a piece for The Mail on Sunday saying that “mass indoor events are now in my sights…we need to start filling seats in much larger numbers – not just for the audiences, not just for the venues and livelihoods who depend on them, but for the entire urban economy, too.”
Dowden has described the initiative as “Operation Sleeping Beauty” and is adamant that testing is key to reopening spaces without distancing: “Testing is the short-term key until we find a working vaccine. We’re making exciting advances in quick turnaround testing, where on-the-day coronavirus tests could give people who test negative a pass to visit the theatre that evening”.
No time-scale for this was announced by Dowden, though he did add that he “aims to bring back some of the magic of theatre for families this Christmas, and I hope to share more progress soon.” The MP also mentions “a world-beating, £1.57 billion rescue package to see [the arts] through the crisis”, though the package’s contents will not be distributed until next month for smaller organisations or December for larger ones.
A second article run in The Sunday Times seems to back Dowden’s points, though states that “theatres and sports stadiums will be allowed to open without social distancing within weeks.”
This initiative is part of the government’s proposed desire for mass testing across the next few months: “theatres and sports venues will become key beneficiaries of the government’s Operation Moonshot programme, which aims to test up to four million people a day for the coronavirus using new saliva tests that give results in minutes.”
While 1 November was initially given as a date when shows may recommence without social distancing, sources told The Sunday Times that this could be brought forwards: “Rapid testing is seen as the thing that can unlock the issue of getting audiences back…There have been meetings this week. Direction has been given at a very senior level to work at extreme pace on this. The PM is keen on making rapid progress.” The Sunday Times’ story is based largely on reports from unnamed government sources and senior officials working on the reopening strategy.
The report also states that a scheme similar to “eat out to help out”, as recently recommended by a think tank, could be implemented for the arts. According to The Sunday Times, one idea involves theatres and restaurants teaming up to provide “cut-price deals on Mondays, so those with a ticket that day could save on the cost of their pre or post-theatre meal.”
While all positive rumblings, the absence of tangible policies right now means many producers will not be able to plan a sensible reopening strategy – with rehearsals, casting, marketing campaigns and more needed to get shows back on their feet.
Though The Sunday Times article states correctly that “Ministers want the plans in place before the winter pantomime season, which is a key money-spinner for theatres” – the vast majority of pantomimes have already been cancelled or postponed due to a lack of certainty around social distancing.
As such, many venues have already had to make large-scale redundancies, with the RSC only the latest to signal consultations have begun.