In his speech yesterday, Boris Johnson suggested that a combination of testing and vaccine was key to reopening theatres;
“What we are thinking of at the moment is more of a route that relies on mass vaccination, and we intend to vaccinate all adults in the country by the autumn, plus lateral flow testing, rapid testing for those bits that are the toughest nuts to crack as it were - such as nightclubs and theatres.”
He hasn't set a concrete date for theatres to return at full capacity, but the UK's target is for all adults to be vaccinated by this autumn. Rapid mass testing of audiences could mean that venues could reopen at full capacity then, or even sooner. But first, there are some huge questions to answer.
Who will pay for the tests?
Theatres are already strapped for cash after they put all their resources behind opening to socially-distanced audiences last Autumn, only to have their plans crushed by November's lockdown. Will the government put its money where its mouth is, and fund this mass testing programme?
Lateral flow tests aren't fully accurate - so would we still need additional measures?
Reports on the accuracy of lateral flow tests vary. They do seem to pick up the most infectious cases, but they often don't catch people who are within 1-2 days of being infected. It's possible that the government will still insist on a degree of social distancing or restriction on total audience numbers, in addition to testing.
What about the logistics?
Even bag searches add huge queues at the doors of theatres, which often have a single public entrance, leading to bottleneck. To incorporate mass testing into their plans, theatres will need to invest in South Korea-style infrastructure that can test audience members while keeping them at a safe distance from each other. One suggestion has been that they could test themselves at home the day before, while being watched by a theatre staff member over Zoom - it's a promising suggestion, but it does mean trusting audiences to test themselves accurately, and to be honest about their results.
Will people who test positive get a refund?
Audience members will need to be reassured they won't lose out, especially since ticket prices are likely to be high, to account for the additional financial burden of mass testing.
Would people who've been vaccinated still need a test?
There's been talk of 'vaccine passports', which may become important as the proportion of the UK population that's been vaccinated rises steeply. But it's possible that new variants could resist the vaccine, meaning that testing for all audience members would remain the safest (if the most expensive) route.
The key to getting audiences back in the theatres likely won't be one single measure - it will be a combination, including temperature checks, mask-wearing, rapid testing, improved ventilation and careful crowd management. The example of South Korea proves that it is possible, but struggling theatres will rely on government support and policy clarity to make theatre fans' dreams a reality.