Oliver Dowden has cast doubt on hopes that theatres may reopen for Christmas pantomimes this year, warning that staging performances without social distancing is still "some way off".
He said there is a need to be "realistic" in the desire to get venues open without social distancing, with pantomime "at the very difficult end" of the scale.
In the wake of the welcome announcement of a £1.57 billion rescue package for the sector, the culture secretary is being pressed to publish detailed guidance on when theatres will be able to reopen and begin earning money again following many months of closure.
The package, announced by the government last night, has been welcomed with relief by theatre and the wider creative industries. However, it does not contain sought-after information about when and how venues will be able to reopen.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dowden said asking when theatre audiences will be able to return fully is the same as asking when social distancing will end across the entire economy.
He said: "We are simply not at a point we can do that for theatres, nor will we be for some time."
"I have to say that the point at which they can perform without social distancing is some way off. If you think about most of our theatres, they’re often Victorian theatres, the people are often packed in close together.
"I want to make sure it can happen, and for example I was at the London Palladium just last week with Andrew Lloyd Webber looking at some of the mitigation that they’ve introduced based on their experience in South Korea. But these are all mitigations, and have to be weighed up in the wider impact of the R number," he said.
Dowden added he would "love us to get to a point where we could have Christmas pantomimes back", but said they represent "huge transmission risks".
He said: "The challenges are, first of all you’ve got from granny to grandchild, you’ve got kids shouting and screaming ’is he behind you?’ and all the other stuff we love doing. It’s highly interactive, there’s usually bubble soap being chucked around and whatever else. All of those represent huge transmission risks.
"It is at the very difficult end of it but of course we will work through all the challenges, but we want to be realistic about it. If we can do it we will, but it looks challenging."
Theatres and producers have been calling for more clarity from the government on reopening timelines to allow them to plan, with many arguing that key decisions on whether to go ahead with pantomimes and Christmas shows for 2020 need to be made in the next few weeks.