Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson and Prof Chris WhittyImage copyright

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Boris Johnson’s appearances have left audiences “cringing”, Equity’s leader says

The government’s coronavirus performance has been a “pantomime”, the union for actors and entertainment industry professionals has said.

Paul Fleming, general secretary-elect of Equity, told the BBC more state funding was needed to keep the arts going through the pandemic.

He called for greater “clarity” on when theatres, circuses, concert halls and other venues can reopen in England.

The government said it was in “close dialogue” with owners and performers.

Last month, ministers announced an emergency support package of loans and grants worth £1.57bn for theatres, galleries, museums, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues.

Some venues had been due to reopen in England from 1 August, in an experiment to see whether they could operate within social-distancing rules.

But last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed this until at least 15 August, amid concerns over a rise in coronavirus infections.

Theatre owners and performers are worried that the lucrative pantomime season might not go ahead this winter, with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden warning recently that it would be “challenging” to stage such “highly interactive” shows.

Mr Fleming, who takes up his post as Equity’s leader in October, said: “Perhaps the reason why the government is less than bothered about reopening pantomime is because they’ve had enough of it themselves – [in managing] the whole [coronavirus crisis] from start to finish.”

He complained that ministers were not looking in enough detail at the “complex” needs of theatres, which could not reopen as easily as shops.

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Pantomimes are the biggest money-spinners for many theatres

On Monday the union Bectu, which represents theatre workers, said redundancies among them had jumped from 3,000 to 5,000 in four weeks.

Equity has launched a parliamentary petition calling for more protection for venues and performers.

Mr Fleming said: “This isn’t fun. This is an industry.

“And when you see £600m going to EasyJet alone – and I’m sure that money is needed and I’m very glad people are having jobs protected there – you wonder, how come we are getting £1.57bn alongside museums, galleries, the rest of the cultural sector.”

Mr Fleming argued ministers had shown a “lack of clarity” in their thinking and messaging on coronavirus, saying: “We’ve all had those cringing moments, haven’t we? We’ve sat down and we’ve watched Boris give his responses.

“And then either side of him are the two scientists and they essentially say what he should have said. It creates anxiety for us all. It’s not a hit performance.”

Arts Council England says arts and culture contribute more than £10bn a year to the UK economy.

A government spokesperson said that “at every point” it had stated its “plan to reopen society and the economy, including allowing live performances to restart, is conditional – that it relies on continued progress against the virus, and that we would not hesitate to put on the brakes if required”.

“We remain in close dialogue with the sector and will continue to work closely with them to determine how and when indoor performances can restart in a safe way,” they added.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, has published a guide to helping the arts recover from the pandemic.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson, chairman of the LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board, said this would “unlock the potential of their creative communities to bounce forwards towards a better society and economy”.

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