Boris Johnson’s message to stay away from theatres has been criticised as a “crippling blow” to the creative industry because the measures were advisory rather than an outright ban.
By not enforcing a shutdown, producers say they will not be able to claim insurance and shows will go bankrupt.
Theatres in the West End and around the UK are closing their doors as part of stringent new social distancing measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which also includes pubs, restaurants and clubs.
But Caroline Norbury, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation and Creative England, criticised the prime minister’s remarks.
She said: “As the social distancing measures announced are only advisory, rather than an outright ban, we are deeply concerned that creative organisations and cultural spaces will find they are unable to claim compensation for the huge losses they will experience as a result of COVID-19.
“Public safety remains the top priority for everyone in the creative sector.
“However, these measures have the potential to devastate the UK’s theatres, museums, cinemas, venues and other cultural spaces reliant on audiences, visitors and participation, as well as the huge array of creators and freelancers who work within these industries.”
She added: “For the sake of our £111.7bn creative industries, it is vital that government puts in place support to ensure that our world-leading creative sector is able to survive COVID-19.”
Over 15 million people visited London’s theatres last year and not since the plague in the 17th century have they been completely closed.
On Monday night, the West End was virtually deserted.
Less than an hour before performances were due to start, doors were shut.
Staff – some wearing gloves – handed out notices and told audiences they would be closed for the foreseeable future.
There was shock and disbelief among many people that this was happening and it seemed to be a turning point that normal life was going to change.
After she was turned away, one woman said: “I’m shocked, unbelievable, so scary.”
Another said: “It’s a bit annoying from a personal perspective because we’ve been planning this for a very long time but I do totally understand.”
And there was criticism over the time taken to make the decision.
One theatregoer said: “I think this decision should have been made maybe three or four days back – so everyone had a very clear understanding – but it’s like everyone is in a limbo now.”
After the prime minister’s news conference, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) – which represents hundreds of theatres in the capital including the National Theatre, London Palladium and London Coliseum – and UK Theatre issued a statement saying: “Following official government advice which stipulates that people should avoid public buildings including theatres, we regret to announce that SOLT and UK Theatre member venues will be closed, to help slow the spread of coronavirus.”
They went on to say: “Closing venues is not a decision that is taken lightly, and we know that this will have a severe impact on many of the 290,000 individuals working in our industry.”
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