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Stage fright: why UK unlocking is unnerving events workers

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After a year of restrictions, shutdowns and uncertainty, events are back on with full capacity audiences. But how are events workers feeling about their personal safety and how are employers responding?


The show must go on, goes the saying. Yet, for over a year now, it hasn’t. The impact on those who work in and love the industry has been immense. Joy flooded Twitter since the news that, from 19 July, big events can return with no social distancing. “Excited to be in the theatre with a packed house!” tweeted Tom Fitch, a lighting technician. “I have actual tears right now, this doesn’t feel real… get me in a full capacity theatre right now, it’s that atmosphere I’ve missed the most,” said West End actor @westendmoll.

Tim Maple, a musician who works regularly in the West End, says he’s been one of the ‘lucky ones’ to manage to scrape a living in the past year. “I’m sure I would be far more concerned if I was unvaccinated,” he tells Safety Management. “But I don’t think there was any point in the pandemic that I wouldn't have rather risked getting the illness than jeopardising my livelihood.”

65 per cent of people working in the events industry have seen their income halve due to the Pandemic restrictions. Photograph: iStock

Yet, stopping large gatherings and events isn’t a new tactic to halt the progress of pandemics. Over 400 years ago, on 25 July 1603, King James I cancelled an extravagant coronation to mark his accession to the throne due to the plague. Numerous theatres were also shut down.

However effective in curbing coronavirus, the government’s interventions on the events industry have been brutal financially. Sixty-five percent of people working in the sector have seen a fall of income of over 50 per cent, according to campaign group #Wemakeevents. A staggering 30 per cent have seen a fall of over 90 per cent.

It’s now nearly a week into the further unlocking that has resulted in few protections enshrined in law, although there is guidance. Are events workers confident that the full re-opening won’t compromise their personal safety and how are their employers responding?

Increasing capacity

The government has chosen to abandon laws around wearing masks and social distancing, leaving it up to businesses and individuals to decide. The events industry was quick to announce that it will continue to observe Covid secure methods to protect staff (and audiences). The Society of London Theatre (SOLT) has urged theatres to continue to use protocols developed for the event industry, called See it Safely, which have now been updated and reissued. 

Unions like Bectu are urging venues to adopt Covid secure guidelines to protect backstage crew, performers and audiences alike. Photograph: iStock.

Julian Bird, Chief Executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, said :“As we increase capacity, we want to ensure that positive audience sentiment remains. For this reason, we hope audience members show respect for fellow theatregoers and staff by continuing to wear face coverings when coming into our venues and moving around them." According to Bectu, the union for workers in the media and entertainment industries, masks and face coverings should continue to be used in public areas of buildings and areas which have poor ventilation. Hybrid working should continue where staff want it.

Ventilation

But in practice, it’s not necessarily going to be as easy as that, particularly when it comes to providing ventilated workspaces for performers. Tim Maple, who has worked on musicals including Thriller and Dear Evan Hansen, says theatre pits, where he spends a lot of his working time, are inherently very poorly ventilated: “Even before Covid there were issues in some with CO2 levels. If nothing changes in this regard they will remain a perfect breeding ground for viruses, and I know a large number of West End musicians and performers were infected around the second week of March 2020. There is no doubt at this point that the theatres are doing everything they can to avoid cases within their workforce, but lack of ventilation is still an issue, and probably will remain so for a while.”

The age of buildings is a huge factor in employers’ ability to provide ventilation and space for social distancing. Philip Henslowe, who built the open-air Rose theatre (like the Globe), in the Sixteenth Century may well have been onto something. Our Victorian theatres do not have the same advantages.

People’s behaviour – an unknown factor

Then there is public behaviour, which is essentially unpredictable. Martin Fullard, writing for Conference News, talks about the government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), which tracked the number of cases reported as part of a controlled experiment. Events, including the Euros at Wembley, Wimbledon and Download festival required people to test and to follow guidance on Covid secure protocols. Fullard says: “There is no doubt from Government or the scientists about our capacity to run safe events, that is not, and never was, in question: it is the behavioural trends of [people attending them] and to assess the real-world practicalities of things like testing and added ventilation. This was not about events as we run them, but how people behave when they are there.”

As events get larger, there is a ‘higher risk of transmission’ due to crowd density, the ERP has said. Photograph: iStock

The ERP has found ‘no major outbreaks’ out of the 58,000 people who attended events. However, it has only released results from the first phase of the work which was conducted when cases were much lower than today. As events get larger, the report also says there is a ‘higher risk of transmission’ due to crowd density. Most people (88.4%) did not wear face coverings while grouped together, found the report.

Michael Anderson, a consultant who has advised the events industry for years on all things health and safety, says it’s important to remember what it feels like to be returning to work as opposed to attending an event for fun. “We know from a number of the Pilot events – there’s anecdotal evidence – which indicates people were concerned about having to work in such close proximity to others even though the reassurance was given by promoters and production managers that ‘look the audience don’t have any masks, it’s no worse for you than them.’ But the reality is somewhat different, you’re at work and there are greater responsibilities placed on the employer and being at work. We know there are certain concerns.”

Reopening: ‘like juggling with knives’

People are worried about safety, but this is not what’s making headline news. Andrew Lloyd Webber has said the theatre industry is "on its knees" due to self-isolation Covd-19 rules. Monday and Tuesday’s performance of Cinderella had to be cancelled after a cast member tested positive for Coronavirus and close contacts had to isolate. Equity is joining Lloyd-Webber and others to call for rule changes to self-isolate to be brought forward to now, rather than 16 August as planned. Speaking on LBC on 20 July, the producer of Heathers the Musical said he had ‘mixed feelings’ about being back to a full house. A mixture of ‘fear’ and ‘excitement’: “Producers are used to [multi-tasking] but this is like juggling with knives. We are scared to be shut down.”

Six the musical (pictured here in the West End) has had its run at Hull New Theatre cancelled after cast members tested positive. Photograph: iStock

For this reason, thinks Tim, event organisers and employers will just be desperate to be as Covid-secure as possible – the consequence of any other approach is just not tenable after so much stop-starting. “I think at this point my employers’ interest in my safety starts and ends at the point at which it becomes a threat to their ability to keep trading – Hairspray opened to rave reviews and closed again for 10 days because of a single Covid case.”

He says that as a result employers will support an individual’s attitude to risk, such as mask wearing – especially because there’s an element of self-preservation involved. “I’ve certainly not felt, in the places I’ve worked in post-lockdown, that they are doing too little to keep us safe, in fact restrictions can often seem pointlessly theatrical, but it’s the only way they can stay trading at present.”

Theatre trades on drama, but the drama off stage with Covid cases rising and the uncertainty of what that could lead to is a bit too real. One message that comes through is that like all other sectors of society, there is no economics without health.

People in the events industry want to stage and perform for an audience and they will do what it takes to stay safe so we can all enjoy a sustainable return.

That has to mean audiences play their part too, by not showing up to an event if feeling unwell, and respecting the theatre or event venue’s rules. Or, as Christopher Clegg, a creative director, tweets: “I'll still be wearing my mask, and following the venue rules along with relaxed distancing, we can at least make a comeback in a meaningful way.”

 

 

 

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