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MIGHT WE BE FACING MORE RESTRICTIONS SOON?
Since so-called “Freedom Day”, when all last COVID restrictions were removed, England (in particular) has been engaged in a vast, unregulated experiment with the virus, testing its will to return and bring us back to our knees. Julian Bird, CEO of SOLT and UK Theatre, hailed the return to full capacity in theatres at the time as a “lifeline for the industry.” I wondered aloud at the time whether, in fact, it would prove to be its death knell, especially when the government failed to implement any restrictions on large indoor gatherings, neither requiring checks on vaccine status or at least negative tests, or even mandating that masks be worn in indoor settings.
Boris Johnson spoke of personal choice and personal responsibility in taking precautions. And SOLT “hoped” that people would show consideration for each other by continuing to wear masks at their venues.
As I’ve regularly bemoaned here, many theatregoers show no such consideration; Equity does not even require performers and crew to keep each other safe by mandating vaccines for them.
And now, with yesterday recording the highest death toll since March of 223 (see below) and with the UK now having among the highest weekly rates of new reported cases in the world, there are calls today by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of theNHS Confederation which represents the healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that immediate action was required to prevent the NHS “stumbling into a crisis”.
He is reported in The Guardian saying: “We are right on the edge – and it is the middle of October. It would require an incredible amount of luck for us not to find ourselves in the midst of a profound crisis over the next three months.”
He went on to say, “The government ought to not just announce that we’re moving to plan B, but it should be plan B plus. We should do what’s in plan B in terms of masks … working from home, but also we should try to achieve the kind of national mobilisation that we achieved in the first and second waves, where the public went out of their way to support and help the health service.”
“We need that same sense of pulling together over the next few months, trying to avoid risky behaviour if it’s not necessary. This is not a question of if we don’t do it something might happen. If we don’t do it, it would take a miracle for us not to find ourselves in the midst of a really profound crisis in our health and social care system over the next three months.Given how ruinously the theatre industry was affected during the lockdowns, you’d have thought the theatre industry would have led the way in trying to mitigate the spread of COVID.
But though there are protocols for checking that people are vaccinated or have a negative test, many theatres are failing to carry these checks out; and mask wearing at many theatres has almost entirely vanished. It depends on which theatre you go to; last week, theatregoers wearing them at English National Opera (who were offered masks at the door if they did not have one) and at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva were in the majority; on the other hand, when I saw Back to the Future at the Adelphi I was very much in the minority to be wearing one.
It’s particularly telling that this was the case at Back to the Future, which lost its leading actor on the day of its opening night when he tested COVID positive, and then had to cancel the rest of that week’s performances as other cast members were also affected. But at least the cast were being tested regularly so this came to light; audiences are freely exposing themselves to risk every time they sit in a theatre.
The Guardian reports, “Boris Johnson has said that if the government’s “plan A” – encouraging take-up of Covid booster and flu jabs – was not sufficient to prevent “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS it would roll out plan B. This includes compulsory face masks in some settings, asking people to work from home and introducing vaccine passports.”
Why on earth face masks could not have been mandated — as they are in Wales and Scotland — in indoor settings is another question, and yet again unnecessary casualties are the result. Likewise vaccine passports, or proof of negative status. But theatres are reluctant to do so, because it might deter theatregoers.
Of course, if people are urged to work from home again, that will have an immediate impact on central London traffic, and theatres will suffer again.
But this time around, my sympathy is gone. Having failed to take steps to insist that their audiences protect themselves and each other, the theatre has failed to protect itself, too.
In a separate news story in The Guardian yesterday about a new Delta variant, Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, commented, “We shouldn’t be blaming the virus for what is going on in the UK. It is because we have fundamentally failed to control transmission”. And he warned of the new variants, “It breaks through the vaccines anyway, so vaccines protect you partially from an infection being transmitted but it is not complete protection. So the message needs to be, let’s stop worrying about mutations and worry about the fact we have uncontrolled transmission in the UK.”
And if that’s the case, theatres — like any other crowded indoor spaces — are perfect places for that to occur.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK….
I’m planning on a return trip to New York, at last, the moment the borders re-open (they’re due to reopen on November 8, and I’m booked to fly on November 9. At least I know that they take COVID safety very seriously there and no one is admitted to theatres without proof of vaccine. But New York’s biggest show is always the city itself, as these pictures prove.
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS