Prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that England will move to Step 4 of the Government roadmap on 19 July 2021, meaning that theatres will be able to return to full attendance levels.
From that date on, neither social distancing or the wearing of face masks will be legal requirements in theatre environments, but both Johnson and health secretary Sajid Javid explained there was still an expectation that people would wear face coverings in crowded and indoor spaces.
In response to the statement, Julian Bird, chief executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, offered some clarification on how theatre were likely to respond to the lifting of restrictions.
Bird said: “The thousands of people who have already come back to the theatre since 17 May have been overwhelmingly positive about their experience and how safe and comfortable they felt. As we increase capacity, we want to ensure that this positive audience sentiment remains.
“For this reason, we hope audience members show respect for fellow theatregoers and staff by continuing to wear face coverings when coming into our venues and moving around them.”
The following measures will cease from 19 July:
- Socially distanced auditorium seating (although some productions may continue to offer some or all of their performances as socially distanced over the summer)
- Restrictions on booking party size and limitations to households or bubbles
- Compulsory temperature checks before entering the venue (although some venues may still require these – information will be available on individual venue websites)
- Compulsory check-in via the NHS app before entering the venue
Those measures remaining in force include:
- Enhanced cleaning
- Hand sanitiser stations
- Wearing of face coverings will be “strongly encouraged”, especially while moving around inside the venue
- Modified routes around the building to avoid overcrowding
- Recommendation that theatregoers bring minimal possessions
- Contactless ticketing, possible staggered arrival times and security checks
- Restricted Stage Door activities post-show
- ‘Book with Confidence, Exchange with Ease’ pledge allowing exchanges up to 24 hours ahead of a performance if a ticket holder cannot attend due to Covid
In addition, Johnson urged venues with large crowds or audiences to make use of the NHS Covid pass “which shows proof of vaccination, a recent negative test, or natural immunity as a means of entry”.
It had been hoped that theatres would no longer be at the mercy of the Test and Trace system, but it will remain in place. The system’s rules on self-isolation have resulted in several productions cancelling performances for a 10-day period with recent victims being the West End production of The Prince of Egypt and Romeo and Juliet at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park.
Producers have made a plea for an alternative testing system to the Test and Trace scheme and have continued to campaign for a proper insurance scheme for an industry still continuing to suffer in the wake of the pandemic.
Eleanor Lloyd, president of SOLT, said:
“Producers want to get our industry back on its feet, creating employment and entertaining audiences across the country – but we are doing so under debilitating self-isolation rules and still without the protection of cancellation insurance.
“This is not a sustainable situation, especially as the safety net of the Culture Recovery Fund continues to leave many productions ineligible for support.”
She added that the theatre industry still needed Government assurance and support on the following issues in order to be able to sustain the reopening and rebuild successfully:
- Provision of a Government-backed theatre insurance scheme to mitigate financial risks around future Covid-related show postponements and cancellations
- An alternative to automatic self-isolation for casts and crew after contact with a positive Covid case, allowing workers to test themselves out of isolation rather than potentially shutting down an entire production
- Clarity and efficiency around distribution of the remaining Culture Recovery Fund money, and recognition of the difficulties – particularly for commercial theatre businesses – in accessing support
While venues in England can open from 19 July, the date for theatres in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to fully reopen is still some way off and president of UK Theatre Fiona Allan explained that “this frustrating lack of consistency makes planning UK-wide tours extremely difficult”.
As throughout the pandemic, theatres will continue to use SOLT’s industry-wide See it Safely protocols which have been updated and reissued following the changes in Government guidance for live events. The majority of Covid safety measures will remain, including a strong recommendation of the use of face coverings, as advised by the Government.
Johnson also urged the public to remain vigilant and exercise caution in the coming weeks. He warned: “While the phenomenal vaccine rollout has offered every adult some protection against the virus, and the crucial link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths is weakened, the global pandemic is not over yet.
“Cases will rise as we unlock, so as we confirm our plans today, our message will be clear. Caution is absolutely vital, and we must all take responsibility so we don’t undo our progress, ensuring we continue to protect our NHS.”