March 24: The roadmap to the end of lockdown: maybe theatre needs to take the A1 rather than the M1

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Yesterday was the first anniversary of the first lockdown.

And we’re still in another one now — the third national lockdown — that have followed.

But Boris Johnson recently pledged a no-going-back exit strategy out of lockdown, which given his government’s propensity for last minute changes of plan and strategy, can only mean one thing: we’ll be U-turning again on that commitment imminently.

All the signs are here again, as many countries in Europe have back into their own lockdowns over the last week.

As the New York Times reported yesterday,

“A resurgent virus and lagging vaccinations have forced governments to renege on promises that they would slowly reopen businesses and society as spring approached. That has spurred protests across Europe as people chafe at more restrictions.

… Just three weeks ago, [Chancellor Angela] Merkel and state officials hammered out a road map to reopening that relied on a decline in case rates. Two weeks and a 57 percent increase in daily new cases later, it is clear that Germany is headed into another virus wave. The number of cases in Germany has more than doubled to about 13,000 per day from 6,000 in mid-February. The country has been reopening as the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant that was first found in Britain spreads rapidly, making up nearly three-quarters of new cases, German scientists say.”

The lockdown in Germany has just been extended to April 18.

No man is an island, they say; and although Britain is an island nation, we are not as separated from Europe as the fulfilment of the Brexit promise would suggest. I’m not sure the virus recognises the borders that Priti Patel is so fond of, or is put off, as the collapse in food and drink exports from Britain to Europe have recently suggested, by the additional taxes and crippling bureaucracy that have ensued.

And yet here we are about to ease lockdown restrictions — from next Monday (March 29), we will be allowed to meet others outdoors again, within the ‘rule of six’, and stay at home rules will end.

Outdoor sport facilities will reopen, and formally organised outdoor sports can resume. However, under a new law, a £5,000 fine will be levied against anyone trying to travel abroad “without good reason”, again in an attempt to stop leisure travel, or influencers seeking to spend time in Dubai — a particular irritation to Priti Patel, who back in January branded such behaviour as “unacceptable”; much as bullying in defiance of the parliamentary code is, presumably.

Still, she pressed on:

“We see plenty of influencers on social media showing off about which parts of the world that they are in, mainly in sunny parts of the world. Going on holiday is not an exemption and it is important that people stay at home.”

Further reopening stages include the re-opening of shops, restaurants and pubs to outdoor service, and gyms reopening, no earlier than April 12; then outdoor groups of up to 30 being allowed to meet, plus indoor entertainment including museums, theatres and cinemas reopening (subject to social distancing), as well as the possible resumption of international travel, no earlier than May 17.

The latter date has already come under doubt for foreign travel, with defence secretary Ben Wallace sent out on the media rounds to deliver the unpopular message that summer holidays abroad may not be possible after all.

As he told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday morning,

“I think it’s very, very important that we see not only how pandemic is developing abroad, but also see how we are dealing with it, and the vaccinations.

I think our number one consideration is that even though the UK is almost leading the world on vaccination rates with over half the adult population inoculated, it is really important that we don’t import new variants and undermine all that hard work.

I haven’t booked my holiday, I will wait to see what the responses from those taskforces in April. I think it would be premature to do that, it would be potentially risky, we’re seeing growing variants.” 

Where this leaves the implementation of stage four (no earlier than June 21) — which could see all legal limits on social contact ending, meaning no social distancing required at all — is another question. Plenty of West End shows have already been building this date into their planning around re-opening, with Disney’s The Lion King on Monday announcing its resumption of performances from July 29:

Of course, theatres need more advance notice than the single week that the government has committed itself to for confirming that these stages can be met, and the box office needs to re-open sooner so that they will actually have an audience to play to.

The government’s roadmap is full of potential roadblocks and detours for them to act upon too closely, yet it’s all they’ve got to go on. It’s like setting off a road trip north from London not knowing exactly which roads will be available for you to travel on, but taking the M1 rather than the A1 to get yourself started: they both get you there, but the M1 is a lot faster. Except that the M1 is more prone to accidents as a result. The slow and steady A1 may instead win you the race, getting you there over a longer route, but without crashing.

And maybe the more cautious A1 route is what we need for theatre, rather than the M1 route, right now.

As Vanessa Thorpe put it in a news feature in The Observer on Sunday,

“Live entertainment is coming back in two halves, much like a traditional night at the theatre. First, a new breed of open-air shows, solo performances and inventive productions for smaller audiences will lead the way this spring, then in late summer and early autumn many of Britain’s grander theatres will follow, once audiences can safely be admitted again in capacity crowds.”

She quotes Maggie Clarke of Without Walls, a festival and event consortium, who says that she she and her colleagues are experiencing a boom in demand for outdoor shows.

“Small is beautiful for now,We have 21 new projects, many of them are dance, but we have a whole range and we are keeping all the productions slim and trim.”

That luxury is not available for shows like the aforementioned The Lion King, Wicked [pictured above] or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which need to budget their production and running costs against a full house, not a socially distanced reduced one.

And there are massive costs involved in re-installing — and effectively re-opening — a show like The Phantom of the Opera, which was entirely stripped out of Her Majesty’s during the last year, ahead of bringing in the revised UK touring version that had just launched a national tour at Leicester when the theatre shutdown occurred. Andrew Lloyd Webber has previously said that he hopes to have that show back in town by July, when he also has his new show Cinderella also scheduled to open at the Gillian Lynne and the 2019 revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat back at the London Palladium.

So there’s a lot riding on the timetable out lockdown previously given by Johnson met. But as Europe’s current experience shows, that may be easier said that done. We may have officially left Europe, but the virus, I fear, may be unaware of that.

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