As predicted, the Government has confirmed it will shelve the full reopening of theatres in England until 19 July 2021 at the earliest.
Rising cases of the Delta variant of the Coronavirus has stalled the implementation of Stage 4 of the roadmap for transition from lockdown to full lifting of pandemic-related restrictions, in order that substantially more people can be vaccinated.
The news has come as a blow to hard-pressed theatre managements who were depending upon an imminent return to full capacity audiences.
“There is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and thousands more deaths will ensue that would otherwise be avoided,” insisted prime minister Boris Johnson at today’s press conference announcing the month-long postponement.
With several shows already underway in expectation of a mid-June easing of restrictions and others prepared to launch during July, there are widespread fears among commercial and subsidised theatre managements that the delay will precipitate further but unexpected financial losses.
Earlier today producer Howard Panter warned ahead of the press conference that the move would cause “significant” damage to the theatre industry. Impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber had been still more outspoken, threatening to risk arrest by opening his venues on the original 21 June mooted for the implementation of Stage 4.
Despite the potentially damaging affects n box offices, indoor venues will be forced to continue to function at 50% capacity or 1,000 people maximum – depending upon which is the smaller number.
In a statement after the Downing Street announcement, Trafalgar Entertainment’s Panter and Rosemary Squire were scathing, describing it as “a catastrophe for the theatre, music and live- entertainment sector”.
“[It] is yet another bungle from a government that wouldn’t be given a single star in a review of its performance. The confusion and muddled-messages are reminiscent of a West End farce.”
They added that Government data demonstrated that live events were safer than pubs, restaurant and shops. “Yet still, our world-leading sector is being prevented from opening, despite the untold millions that have been spent on preparations.”
Further comments came from CEO of the Creative Industries Federation, Caroline Norbury, who insisted that businesses would again confront a protracted period of uncertainty. “While of course public health should remain the number one priority, this decision by the government serves to further underline why government-backed insurance for audience and footfall reliant businesses is urgently needed,” she stated.
Meanwhile SOLT and UK Theatre chief executive Julian Bird warned of serious implications for many theatres and performing companies around the country.
“’This delay not only impacts productions and theatres preparing to open in the next few weeks, but also shows currently running socially distanced, which had planned to increase their capacity – and producers making the difficult decision whether to start rehearsals for shows due to open in late July or August, with thousands of jobs hanging in the balance.”
Large-scale commercial productions, which received little or no Cultural Recovery Fund support and cannot survive under social distancing faced particular risk, he cautioned.
“We urge Government to consider greater support for affected theatre organisations, by offering a tailored insurance scheme, allocating the remainder of the Cultural Recovery Fund, and extending full furlough and the Business Rates holiday.”
The latest news is likely to see managements redouble their efforts to persuade the Government to agree an insurance scheme for theatres forced to close. Despite predictions in some quarters that culture secretary Oliver Dowden would announce this in light of any decision to delay Stage 4, no announcement has been forthcoming to date.