Dear Lyn, Do you think that theatres should implement vaccine passports as a way of ensuring that theatres can open more swiftly and without social distancing after June 21? I have just discovered I’m pregnant so probably will not be routinely vaccinated until at least the end of the year and am worried this will mean I will be unable to go to the theatre if vaccine passports become necessary. Worried, Barnes
Do I think that theatres should implement vaccine passports? It’s a resounding no from me, not least because as you point out some people, yourself included, will find that they are excluded from going to the theatre if they are put in place.
Like all theatre-lovers I’m eager to see theatres open and theatremakers getting work, but not at any cost. That includes the implementation of policies that bar participation in social activities on the basis of your health status. Does theatre want to be an industry that discriminates in that way? Where will it end?
Great Aunt Cecily has long held stringent views that all theatregoers should be quizzed at the point of buying tickets on whether they have head lice or intend to start coughing the moment the first line of the play is spoken, but she reckons vaccine passports are a form of discrimination that are likely to have disproportionate impact of those already affected by social inequality. I agree.
Theatre already has an audience diversity issue and significant barriers to access, so why embrace putting more in place? I reckon there is something very awry too about the idea of largely unvaccinated younger theatre workforce working on and off stage as actors, stage managers, ushers and bar staff in order to provide entertainment for an older more affluent people who have been vaccinated. Many younger people will not be fully vaccinated (two doses) until the Autumn.
And what do theatres intend to do about the under 18s who are currently not in line for the vaccine at all? Bar them entirely? In Israel vaccine passports already make certain activities such as going to restaurants or the theatre only allowable for those who have had the vaccine. Let’s say you are a UK subsidised theatre, a public space paid for by taxpayers. Will you have security on the door banning those who cannot provide proof of vaccination?
Some in theatre disagree that vaccine passports have ethical issues and think we should just get back to business by any means. Andrew Lloyd Webber has already said that if theatres “need to put something in place, they can.” But why if we are outraged by the fact that Pontins holidays discriminated against certain groups of people because of their surname, should we be any less outraged if theatres discriminate against customers on the basis of vaccination status?
Instead, what we need to do is to put in place protocols that make it as safe as possible for all, and that might include social distancing beyond June 21st. I know it’s hard and it will certainly challenge commercial viability, but that’s a far better option than promoting inequality of access. Ticket prices already do that. In any case, there is an argument that vaccine passports create a false sense of security, as we still don’t know how long immunity lasts after a jab or indeed whether it prevents transmission.
In the end, of course, the decision may be taken out of the hands of individual theatres and a nationwide vaccine passport may be implemented by the government, not least as a way of incentivising vaccine uptake. But that seems unlikely to happen until the entire population has been vaccinated and questions around transmission and vaccine efficacy on variants have been answered. If it does, I suspect that there will be a string of plays around the attendant civil liberties issues, and what many will view as identity cards by stealth.
In the meantime, if, as seems likely, the government offloads the responsibility of whether to demand some form of vaccine passports to individual businesses—whether a pub or a supermarket or a concert hall—it will definitely raise a moral dilemma for theatre, one in which different parts of the sector may take different stands.
Cover image by Markus Winkler.