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Culture Secretary: Guidance around indoor shows without social distancing may not come until 'November at the earliest'

The MP spoke today on BBC Radio 4

The cast of Snow White at The London Palladium
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden gave more information about when indoor performances without social distancing may be able to resume.

While outdoor, socially distanced shows are currently permissable and indoor shows with distancing will be allowed from 1 August, it seems as though indoor shows without social distancing will be a longer way off.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, Dowden said: "We can only give the guidance to resume performances without social distancing when it is safe to do so. The Prime Minister has indicated that will be November at the earliest."

What is notable here is that Dowden claims that he is unable to "give the guidance" until November – essentially meaning that venues wanting to stage pantos will have almost zero time to prepare sets, market productions or rehearse.

When asked why theatres might not know until November if they can open in December, Dowden went on: "We will make the decision as rapidly as we can. But given where we are globally, and the risks around the world, this virus is far from defeated and I don't want to give people false hope."

Dowden added that he "completely understands the desire" for a date when indoor shows can reopen without social distancing. "When it comes to November we will look again".

The MP's words will, according to composer and venue owner Andrew Lloyd Webber, spell disaster for the possibility of panto season – as he recently mentioned the festive shows needs to know by 1 August if it can feasibly go ahead.

Lloyd Webber has highlighted the fact that plane passengers can sit side-by-side with masks for any number of hours within an enclosed space, while theatres remain unable to sit audiences in a similar manner.

A recent trial with socially distanced audiences was labelled "a disaster" by producer Cameron Mackintosh due to the odd environment.

New details around the government's support package were revealed this morning

Jon Morgan of the Theatres Trust said of Dowden's announcement: "Theatres Trust is disappointed to learn that the government will not be setting a date for theatres to reopen without social distancing before November. We appreciate the difficulty and the need for caution, but this means the vast majority of theatres will have no choice but to cancel their pantomime or Christmas show that generates the income to sustain them through the rest of the year, as November will not be sufficient notice to prepare productions and sell tickets.

"This means that more theatres will need to be supported through the government's £1.57bn rescue package. We are pleased to see that Arts Council England's criteria for its £500m share of the £880m grants element is broad enough to include most theatres, but we are concerned that this will not be enough to save all theatres. We urge funding bodies to consider and prioritise the circumstances of theatres that rely on pantomime for a significant proportion of their turnover (as much as 40 per cent in some cases). If the funds do not reach enough of these theatres, particularly with the furlough scheme ending in October, we will see more theatres closing their doors permanently."