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'Challenging' to reopen theatres for Christmas pantomime season, culture secretary admits

Cabinet minister says ‘some way off’ before performances without social distancing measures

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Monday 06 July 2020 21:20 BST
Culture Secretary: Theatre performances without social distancing some way off

Oliver Dowden has admitted it will be challenging to reopen theatres in time for the Christmas pantomime season due the “huge transmission risks” of the events.

The culture secretary said the government will “shortly” be publishing guidance for venues, but warned the point at which they can perform without social distancing is “someway off”.

His remarks come after the Treasury unveiled a £1.5bn lifeline for theatres, independent cinemas and other arts organisations to help them stay in businesses while the coronavirus pandemic forces them to remain closed.

Boris Johnson said the rescue package for the sector would help safeguard the arts for “future generations”, adding it will ensure “arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down”.

Organisations that will be prioritised are understood to include the so-called “crown jewels” of the British arts, culture and heritage industries and those with special local or regional significance, as ministers proceed with their “levelling up” agenda.

But pressed on when theatres will be able to reopen, Mr Dowden told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In relation to theatres, what we’ve said is that they can rehearse or perform behind closed doors. I hope shortly we will be publishing guidance for them to be able to perform outside and then for them to be able with social distancing.

“I have to say, the point at which they can perform without social distancing is someway off. If you think about most of our theatres – they are all from Victorian theatres – people are packed in close together.”

Pressed on whether the Christmas pantomime season would be possible, he added: “Well I would love us to get to the point where we could have Christmas pantos back.

“The challenges are – first of all you’ve got from granny to grandchild, you’ve got kids shouting and screaming ‘He’s behind you’ or the other stuff we love doing, it’s highly interactive, there is 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. I want to be realistic about it, if we can do it we will, but it looks challenging.”

Mr Dowden added that he is working with Public Health England to see if the risks can be mitigated, but added on BBC Breakfast he wanted to “be realistic about the challenges of getting us back to that point any time soon”.

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