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What does the Government's new covid-19 policy mean for the theatre industry?

The Prime Minister has laid out a new three-step plan for reopening to try and give some clarity about the future

A graph of the three-step initiative

The Government today unveiled a 50-page dossier entitled "Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy", setting out a roadmap for the possibility of easing lockdown restrictions in the coming months.

Inside the dossier, more information is provided on the possibility of reopening leisure venues and the hospitality sector over the coming months. However, it does not specifically reference theatres or performing arts venues.

What is said about the hospitality sector?

The reopening of such leisure venues or the hospitality sector falls under "Step Three" of the Government's plan, which would be "no earlier than 4 July" in line with scientific advice and while making sure the "R" number stays low.

"R" refers to the rate of infection – when R is below one, it implies that any infected individual in the UK will infect an average of fewer than one other person.

On page 31, the dossier says that in Step Three: "The ambition at this step is to open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons) hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas)." This would only be possible if the venues meet Covid-19 guidelines on social distancing.

It went on to clarify that: "Some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to re-open safely at this point...or may be able to open safely only in part."

It 'may only be possible significantly later' to fully open spaces like theatres

As mentioned earlier, the dossier itself does not explicitly mention theatres, but does mention "venues that attract large crowds".

On page 21 it states that, while some spaces may be able to reopen, "it is likely that reopening indoor public spaces...may only be fully possible significantly later" than other locations including outdoor spaces.

In full: "While reopening outdoor spaces and activities (subject to continued social distancing) comes earlier in the roadmap because the risk of transmission outdoors is significantly lower, it is likely that reopening indoor public spaces and leisure facilities (such as gyms and cinemas), premises whose core purpose is social interaction (such as nightclubs), venues that attract large crowds (like sports stadia), and personal care establishments where close contact is inherent (like beauty salons) may only be fully possible significantly later depending on the reduction in numbers of infections."

What does all of this mean?

There's little clarity for theatres in the document or in Johnson's speech last night, and any guessing about when venues may open is purely conjecture. We shouldn't expect to see any element of the leisure sector open before 4 July at the earliest, that's for sure.

The dossier says: "the precise timetable for these adjustments will depend on the infection risk at each point" and would also depend on the use of mitigation measures, like contact tracing. It was also revealed on page 22 of the dossier that the restrictions may become regional, that "restrictions may be adjusted in some regions before others: a greater risk in Cornwall should not lead to disproportionate restrictions in Newcastle if the risk is lower".

In his speech last night, Johnson said that: "We will be driven not by hope or economic necessity. We will be driven by science...it is all dependent on a series of big "ifs". The whole country has to follow advice and keep that R down."

New schemes have been proposed on page 32: "In order to facilitate the fastest possible re-opening of these types of higher-risk businesses and public places, the Government will carefully phase and pilot re-openings to test their ability to adopt the new COVID-19 Secure guidelines.

"The Government will also monitor carefully the effects of reopening other similar establishments elsewhere in the world, as this happens. The Government will establish a series of taskforces to work closely with stakeholders in these sectors to develop ways in which they can make these businesses and public places COVID-19 Secure."

No further information on the duration of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was mentioned, and no more details on future financial help has been given. With regards to a vaccine, it was noted that Government aims to "compress the time taken to develop, test, manufacture and distribute a reliable vaccine or treatments as far as possible."

A number of theatre owners have said that social distancing within auditoriums would be financially unsustainable, while those including the National Theatre's Rufus Norris have stated that such measures have been and continue to be explored.