What Boris Johnson's three-stage coronavirus exit plan means for UK theatres

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently recovered from COVID-19, has announced a new three-step exit strategy for reopening the country. Here's how it might affect the West End and UK theatre industry.

What Boris Johnson's three-stage coronavirus exit plan means for UK theatres
A graphic illustrating the easing of restrictions and the potential way out from the COVID-19 lockdown

UK Government publishes a COVID-19 recovery strategy

The Government recently released a 50-page dossier entitled "Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government's COVID-19 recovery strategy," which outlines how lockdown restrictions can be eased within the next several weeks. The dossier mentions the potential reopening of leisure venues and hospitality establishments but does not specifically mention "theatres" or "performing arts venues."

Reopening so-called "leisure venues" falls under Step Three of the three-stage initiative and the dossier states that leisure venues will open "no earlier than 4 July" in line with current scientific and epidemiological advice while ensuring the rate of infection remains low.

Referred to as simply "R", the rate of infection must be below 1, meaning that any individual in the UK who is infected with the new coronavirus must infect fewer than one other person on average. The critical R number is currently estimated to be between 0.5 and 0.9. Loosening up restrictions is conditional on this number staying under control and the Government can hit the brakes at any time should the rate of infection once again exceed 1.

What the COVID-19 dossier says about leisure venues

On page 31 under Step 3, the dossier says: "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.

"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."

The dossier, however, does not explicitly mention theatre venues, only "venues that attract large crowds."

While some spaces may still be able to reopen, page 21 of the dossier states that "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."

How might theatre venues be affected?

In his public address, Boris Jonhson gave very little clarity on how theatres would be affected and said: "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." 

However, it's to be expected that theatres won't open until 4 July at the earliest. 

As the dossier mentions, "The precise timetable for these adjustments will depend on the infection risk at each point" and might depend on such mitigation measures as contact tracing. Page 22 of the dossier also hinted at restrictions becoming regional: "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."

Page 32 of the dossier proposes new pilot schemes: "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."

West End and UK theatres are hanging by a thread

As stressed by many theatre owners, social distancing in auditoriums will certainly not be financially sustainable in the long run, especially for theatres that are already struggling to stay afloat. Currently, UK and West End theatres remain officially shut until 28 June 2020, but this will, of course, likely change to at least 4 July. It remains the hope of many that the West End will reopen as normal at the very least by July or August.


Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

Ephram is a jack of all trades and enjoys attending theatre, classical music concerts and the opera.


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