Prime minister Boris Johnson is facing increasing pressure to support theatre through the coronavirus crisis, as multiple MPs pressed him on the government’s responsibility to ensure the arts survive Covid-19.
During Prime Minister’s Questions, four MPs pushed Johnson on supporting theatres during the debate, during which he said he wants to get theatres open “as fast as we possibly can”.
Responding to Conservative MP Jason McCarthy, who called for more support for the UK’s performers and for Arts Council England’s funds to be replenished by the government, Johnson said: “The house is speaking with pretty much one voice this morning, and I totally share people’s sense of urgency about wanting to get our wonderful creative, cultural and theatrical sectors open as fast as we can, but the house will also remember that what we’re trying to do now involves striking a balance, and it is very very important as we open up the economy that we do not go too far and risk a second spike and further outbreaks.
“As we open the theatre, which we will, we want to make sure that we do it in a Covid-compliant and Covid-secure way.”
Westminster MP Nickie Aiken highlighted the importance of venues in her constituency, such as the London Palladium, the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican, in powering Britain’s recovery from coronavirus.
She asked whether the prime minister shared her hope to see venues open as soon as is safe to do so, ensuring “that the show must go on”.
Johnson replied: “Yes, Mr speaker, the show must go on. I know the power of the theatres, of London’s West End, the entire cultural industries in London, not just as a magnet for our country but the sheer revenues they deliver.
“We want you going as fast as we possibly can, and we want to get life for theatres and theatregoers to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can, but to do that we have to defeat this disease and that is what this government is engaged in.”
Johnson was also pressed by Conservative James Daly and Labour MP Bambos Charalambous, who warned that the arts “hurtles towards the brink of collapse”, and asked whether financial support from the government would be forthcoming.
Johnson said the government would “do everything we can to assist” and recognised that “the economic case for doing so is overwhelming”.
He added: “I would just say to people, keep supporting your workers with the furlough scheme. It’s much much better now to wait for times to get better rather than laying people off.”
In response to Johnson’s comments at PMQs, BECTU said the prime minister had focused too much on reopening, when he should have answered MPs questions on the need for financial support.
BECTU head Philippa Childs said: “The Prime Minister was asked on numerous occasions about whether funding will be made available for the theatre industry, but instead focused on theatres reopening, which is preposterous as they can’t open without being able to put on live performances.
“Every day that goes past without financial support the industry is being decimated, no constituency will escape the disaster that is unfolding and MPs and their constituents know it.”
She said the number of MPs raising the issue in parliament demonstrated that it is not “a niche issue” and that the government must recognise the role theatre and the arts play in the economy and in people’s lives.