Today’s announcements by the prime minister, chancellor and the communities secretary Robert Jenrick provide more definite and welcome news for theatres, museums and galleries and a wide range of other businesses such as pubs, clubs and restaurants.
However, freelances – who make up a large portion of the theatre workforce – seem to be largely overlooked.
The key announcement is that all theatres, museums and galleries must close as soon as possible tonight and must not reopen tomorrow and for 14 days. This will be reviewed on a month by month basis. Cafes and restaurants must close, but can offer takeaways, so it seems that theatres could open their cafes and restaurants on this basis. The PM referred to enforcement through licensing regulations, which suggests local authorities need to enforce these rules. This seems odd. In any case, moving from advice to instruction is welcome as it helps with some insurance claims, although there do seem to be some issues with insurers refusing to pay claims for business interruption on the basis that such policies pay out only if there is damage to premises.
VAT is deferred until June, which provides theatres with a major cashflow benefit in the short term – though it is probably not so valuable for culturally exempt venues.
Theatres, museums and galleries, along with other affected organisations, can claim back as a grant from government 80% of wages of workers (up to £2,500 per month) who have not been working since March 1. This measure is expected to be in place for at least three months.
This is a major inequality and a major issue for the arts generally
Since most theatres closed on or around the SOLT and UK Theatres announcement on Monday, there probably won’t be much backdating before then. It is extremely welcome that theatres will only have to bear 20% of the salaries of staff not working – particularly front of house staff and technical departments, though I expect box office staff will be very busy dealing with refunds for some time yet. Though the chancellor used the term ‘worker’, this seems only to apply to employees. This will be particularly difficult for theatres who have contracted freelance technicians and others, not to mention writers and creative teams. The only measure for the self-employed is that the minimum income floor is being suspended, so self-employed people can now access Universal Credit at a rate equivalent to Statutory Sick Pay for employees. If this is indeed the government’s approach to the self-employed (who in theatres will often be working side-by-side with staff) then this is a major inequality and a major issue for the arts generally.
Theatres will have to honour existing agreements with freelances – whether they are working or not. Many agreements with freelances will have notice provisions, so theatres will now need to assess whether or not to give notice to end those agreements, which would – of course – have major negative implications for the freelances themselves.
There are still many questions to answer.
Sean Egan is an independent theatre lawyer