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Oliver Dowden speaks about the arts support package on BBC Radio Four's Today programme

The secretary of state for DCMS comments on social distancing, freelancers and the panto season

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden
© UK Parliament / Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spoke to BBC Radio Four this morning after the announcement of the Government's £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts last night.

Oliver Dowden spoke with Justin Webb and Nick Robinson about distributing the support funds to institutions around the country, whether freelancers can benefit from the attributed financial package and if there is any scientific rationale behind social distancing in theatres versus social distancing on an aeroplane or in a pub or restaurant.


Radio Four: You might as well relish a day – because you're not going to get many of them – on which you make an announcement and everybody says well done, thank you very much. That's what we're hearing from the arts this morning.

Dowden: "It is a really important day today. Culture and arts are at the heart of our nation. Not only do they enrich the soul – from Shakespeare to Ed Sheeran – but they power our economy. We really are a creative industries superpower. So, I was determined – as was the Chancellor and the Prime Minister – to ensure that we protect our rich cultural legacy. And that is what today's announcement is all about.

"Of course, we'll need to protect the crown jewels – those institutions of national and international significance – but we've also been very clear that we want to ensure that this goes out across the whole county. Particularly in areas where there's very little cultural infrastructure – maybe only one theatre or one gallery – it's even more important to preserve those so you don't have a loss of that for the local community."


Radio Four: A question people ask, in terms of how the money will be handed out, is whether the hundreds of thousands of people who are employed as freelancers, people who are not directly on salaries but who've got no money coming in at all, can benefit as well?

Dowden: "Freelancers are already able to benefit from the freelance furlough scheme. The essence of this package is about preserving those cultural institutions. We will listen to the applications that we receive about how those institutions can be most cost effectively preserved. But at the heart of this, this world-beating £1.57 billion pound package, is about ensuring we protect those institutions for future generations."


Radio Four: What is the scientific basis for allowing someone to sit next to someone else in very close confines on a plane, but not by law to do so in a theatre?

Dowden: "There is risk. When we reduced from two metres to a metre, there was risk and we mitigated against that. In some exceptionally limited circumstances, as on aeroplanes, there has been a further easing. But in relation to each easing, that increases massively the risk of transmission, which is why through all of this we have been going slow, baby steps to go along that path.

"In relation to theatres, what we said is that they can rehearse and perform behind closed doors. I hope shortly we'll be publishing guidance for them to be able to perform outside and then for them to be able to perform with social distancing. The point at which they can perform without social distancing is some way off. If you think about most of our theatres, they're often Victorian theatres, people are packed in close together.

"I want to ensure it can happen – I was at The London Palladium just last week with Andrew Lloyd Webber looking at some of the mitigations that they've introduced based on their experience in South Korea. But these are all mitigations. It also has to be weighed upon in the context of the wider impact on the R number."


Radio Four: And yet we have the bizarre situation where in Soho, outside theatres, there were young people sitting next to each other with no social distancing at all. And not just outside pubs but inside pubs as well over the weekend. So again, why is it possible there but it isn't possible to give adults the choice to take the risk and go to their local theatre?

Dowden: "The vast majority of British people up and down the country showed good common sense and observed the rules, and rightly they observed the rules because if people don't observe the rules there is the risk of infections increasing again."


Radio Four: No Christmas panto season possible then?

Dowden: "I would love us to get to a point where we could have Christmas pantos back.

"The challenges are: you've got [ages] from granny to grandchild; you've got kids shouting and screaming, ‘Is he behind you?' and all the other stuff we love doing; it's highly interactive – there's usually bubble soap being chucked around or whatever else. All of those represent huge transmission risks. So it is at the very difficult end of it, but of course we will work through all the challenges. But I want to be realistic about it. If we can do it, we will, but it looks challenging."


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