It’s surprising what you don’t miss. I was last in a pub on my birthday, and if you’d told me back then that almost four full months later I wouldn’t have been in one since, I’d probably have been quite glum. As it is, I can’t honestly say I’m pining for a pub crawl, although I’d like to spend a few hours with many of the people with whom I used to go for a pint. And come to think of it, I suppose I miss having enough money to go to the pub. But the sight of sweaty crowds on the streets of London, paying £6 a pop to drink beer out of milk cartons and plastic bottles, and then using alleyways as urinals, has brought the point home – was it ever that much fun anyway?
It’s Friday 3rd July and in England, the pubs are reopening tomorrow, while theatres and concert halls are remaining resolutely shut. As with aeroplanes a few weeks ago, many of my exasperated colleagues are asking: if pubs are deemed safe, how can a theatre not be?
My dear friend Brindley Sherratt has pithily suggested that we hire a 747 and perform an opera in the fuselage, highlighting the absurdity of the current situation. Our frustration is understandable, as we read daily reports of theatres closing or laying off staff, and we watch our own resources of finance and enthusiasm dwindle. As individuals and an industry, we can’t take much more of this.
But debating the relative safety of flights, pubs, theatres and various other set-ups is missing the point, and by arguing on that basis we risk spiking our own guns. Back in March, Tomas Pueyo described the strategy for tackling this pandemic as having two stages: the Hammer – where we go into a strict lockdown to bring the infection down to a manageable rate; and the Dance – where we loosen up in various stages in order to keep the much-discussed basic reproduction number, R0, below 1.
He uses the metaphor of a dance, because there is inevitably a degree of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow in all of this. As society opens up, the chaotic nature of how a virus spreads will inevitably lead to further outbreaks which are localised and unpredictable. The measures to counteract that have to be agile. So the bottom line is not whether, for example, pubs or shops or cinemas or theatres are safe. None of them are entirely risk-free under the current circumstances. But how quickly can they be shut back down if necessary with minimal notice?
To some extent it’s also a question of priorities, and there can be no denying that theatre and live music are clearly further down the government’s pecking order than beer and football and Primark. But it’s equally clear that it’s harder when it comes to performing arts venues. We need time to plan, prepare, rehearse and launch – months rather than days or weeks. Smaller-scale operations might be a bit more agile, and generously subsidised ones may have more options on the table. But ultimately they all need time and stability, to a far greater extent than a pub or a cinema.
It’s tempting for us as individual performers to clutch at straws and demand immediate employment at whatever cost. But what the industry needs is long term clarity. A rush to open up, even if theatres could reopen now with a limited number of seats, would in most cases deepen their financial problems rather than solve them. It costs just about as much to put on a show for a 30% capacity crowd as it does for a full house, so in reality we’d merely be drilling a few more holes in the hull of the Titanic. Online performances and recitals to empty halls are far from unhelpful, but they don’t solve the immediate problem that the industry’s ecosystem depends on a full range of viable live performances.
So in fairness to the UK government, their approach to emerging from lockdown isn’t as slap-dashedly inconsistent as it may seem, although they are spectacularly bad at explaining it – their shifty reticence with the data, and the sidelining of their scientific experts, hasn’t helped them at all in that.
To judge from the reactive nature of their approach to the entire crisis, perhaps a few nudges in the right direction might help them nail their colours to the mast, as discussed here earlier this week. But that also begs the question of the risks involved: lurching backwards to another round of shutdown cancellations would be disastrous. A Treasury-backed insurance scheme would be one reasonable way the government could help. At the very least, their “roadmap” needs some dates and numbers on it.
For better or worse, as a society-wide project, post-lockdown opening up has to be government-led, and we’re stuck with this lot, their priorities and their decisions. Politicians in a modern democracy are inevitably obliged to think in simple terms, and so questions need to be put to them in a simple way. Complaining about airlines and pubs and football gets us nowhere.
What we need to know right now is: when can we get back to work? What will the exact restrictions on audience capacity be? What happens if we have to shut back down? And how are we going to survive till then?
Update: the government has helpfully provided a case study in its latest U-turn, tonight deciding that village cricket can after all go ahead from next week, having stated it was unsafe earlier today. Has the science changed in the last few hours? It seems unlikely. Rather, in the face of public pressure, they’ve decided that the change of heart is worth the cost of adding another smidgen onto R0 (and also knowing that it won’t be particularly problematic to reverse that decision if necessary later).
Featured image by Tomas Pueyo