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The Culture Secretary said he knows the arts are not viable while social distancing requirements remain.

Dowden said restrictions on arts venues were "hateful" but necessary

Pippa Fowles

The Culture Secretary has acknowledged the arts sector cannot operate viably under social distancing but says it's the only available option right now.

Oliver Dowden addressed questions from MPs in the DCMS Committee on Wednesday about when venues will be able to reopen at capacity given the rise in coronavirus cases in England. During the hearing he said the Government's "plans A, B, C" were a vaccine, mass on-the-day testing, and waiting out the "natural progression of the disease".

"We will get to a point in the spring where we come out of a difficult part, which is people being indoors and the flu season," Dowden said, suggesting a vaccine could be available early next year.


He acknowledged that "there are actually very few socially distanced performances going on because they're not that financially viable".

"I understand people's concern about it. The only answer available at the moment is to say 'we won't allow indoor performances, socially distanced.'

"I know that the only way to get people back doing the jobs that they love ... and generating wealth and opportunities for people and helping them support their families is to get people back into theatres without social distancing, to get the economy back to normal."

His plan to reopen theatres at capacity by Christmas - dubbed "Operation Sleeping Beauty" - has "of course been slowed," Dowden conceded.

"We can't have any easements at this stage."

In the meanwhile, he said officials were discussing possible risk mitigations with the sector and piloting ways to mass test at events, once that becomes feasible.

Reluctance over a date

Dowden said he was reluctant to set a not-before date for theatres to return to full capacity, lest they invest in shows they are forced to cancel.

He shot down suggestions of a Government-funded seat matching scheme similar to the Eat Out to Help Out programme for the hospitality sector. That scheme made hospitality commercially viable with social distancing; the same could not be done for the cultural sector, Dowden said.

Income subsidy schemes and funding distributed by Arts Council England to support digital and outdoor programmes would help keep the sector afloat until such time as they could resume normal trading, Dowden said.

"Of course this is about preserving institutions but we're encouraging institutions to preserve themselves in the way that create opportunities."

Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan said he appreciated that setting a not-before date amid a rise in infection rates and local lockdowns was "challenging".

"We welcome Oliver Dowden’s commitment to continuing to work with the sector to agree minimum mitigating measures that will enable theatres to safely increase capacity."

'Conservative myth'

Dowden rejected reporting by ArtsProfessional showing organisations that received emergency funding were required to publicly welcome the Government's contribution.

A letter to organisations receiving grants said: "In receiving this funding, you are agreeing to acknowledge this funding publicly by crediting the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund."

It continued: "Alongside this we require you to alert your local media outlets of the news."

Dowden characterised this as "a normal PR campaign" and said MPs' upset over the instructions was "somewhat overblown".

"This is taxpayers' money that is being spent and it's perfectly reasonable to alert people to the fact that it's there.

"Many people completely independently welcomed it and rightly so. This puts to bed this myth around Conservative governments and the arts [that they are not supportive]."