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Live theatre able to continue with social distancing, though measures expected for six months

Boris Johnson has spoken in the House of Commons and theatres can continue as before

National Theatre
© Carlos Delgado / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Venues will remain open with social distancing in place, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced with further confirmation by Culture Secretar Oliver Dowden.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Johnson stated that, despite new restrictions being put in place from Thursday, rules are "by no means a return to the full lockdown from March."

While not mentioning theatres specifically, according to Johnson, the "vast majority of the economy can continue moving forwards", and while hospitality spaces such as pubs and restaurants will have to, from Thursday, close for a curfew by 10pm and operate a table service only, they will be able to stay open. Theatres and cinemas in England will not have to abide by curfew rules.

The DCMS also clarified with WhatsOnStage that shows will not be allowed to start after 10pm and will not be allowed to serve alcohol after this time. Local lockdown measures may also vary.

This is done, the Prime Minister adds, to find a "delicate balance between saving lives and minimising the wider impact of restrictions...We always knew that the prospect of a second wave was real. As in Spain and France, we have reached a perilous turning point."

While venues remain open, Johnson added that "significantly greater restrictions" may be instated at a later date if the current measures do not bring the R number (the rate of transmission) below one. Current guidance is expected to remain in place for "six months" – making it less likely that theatres could reopen without social distancing before the end of the year, as was hinted at by the Culture Secretary earlier this month.

In line with these new expectations, the proposed trial return of fans to live events and sports from 1 October will not go ahead and is being reassessed.

Furthermore, "Covid-secure guidelines will become legal obligations", with more stringent fines in place for organisations and individuals flouting the rules.

In his rebuttal, opposition leader Keir Starmer welcomed these measures, though emphasised that the removal of the furlough scheme, scheduled for the end of October, would be a "disaster", and called for an extension for the scheme.

At the moment, live socially distanced performances are permitted both indoors and outdoors, with venues such as the National Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath and Nottingham Playhouse all unveiling productions for the autumn.

Responding to the Prime Minister's statement today, Jon Morgan of the Theatres Trust said: "While not directly mentioning theatres, this curfew demonstrates that town and city centre businesses such as theatres continue to be under threat. Theatres that were considering reopening with social distancing in place will be less likely to take the risk. Crucially the six month time frame signals that we will not see theatres being able to fully reopen in the near future – the all-important Stage 5 in the government's recovery roadmap.

"With the job retention scheme ceasing at the end of October, it will herald more job losses, will risk more theatres closing permanently – and will result in irreversible damage to our cultural landscape. It is imperative that the government considers sector-specific support such as extending the furlough scheme until such time as it is safe for theatres to reopen fully."

Amateur performances will no longer be permitted if casts are above six.

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