UPDATED: London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire are going into the highest level of COVID-19 restrictions (Tier 3) from midnight on Tuesday, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed.
The restrictions mean that indoor entertainment venues, including cinemas and theaters in the affected areas, will have to close. The rules deal a severe blow to the highly anticipated release of “Wonder Woman 1984,” which is due to open across the U.K. on Wednesday (Dec. 16) as it wipes out a significant number of available screens. However, Variety has confirmed with Warner Bros. that the U.K. release will go ahead as planned.
There are still parts of the country where cinemas are open, although exactly how many movie theaters will be operating in time for the release is still unclear. Warners, at least, has a decent contingency plan for the U.K. in the month-long theatrical window for the film that it carved out with the country’s exhibitors, as revealed by Variety earlier this month.
It’s believed a VOD deal with Comcast-backed pay-TV operator Sky is still being worked out but the deal hasn’t yet closed. It’s unclear whether that month-long window may now be reduced even further given the new restrictions. Sources close to the studio previously denied that a day-and-date VOD release for “Wonder Woman 1984” was in the cards for the U.K.
Announcing the new restrictions on Monday, U.K. Health Secretary Hancock said, “I know that this is difficult news, and I know that it will mean plans disrupted, and that for businesses affected, it will be a significant blow, but this action is absolutely essential, not just to keep people safe, but because we’ve seen early action can help prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later.”
Responding to the Tier 3 status, the U.K. Cinema Association said its members with sites in the capital “will be devastated by today’s decision.”
“Like those in the rest of the country, cinemas in the capital have worked extraordinarily hard to safeguard audiences and staff alike,” said Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UKCA. “It is worth stating again that, as a result, not a single case of COVID has been traced back to a U.K. cinema. Yet those sites will be required to close when non-essential retail — where safeguarding measures are undoubtedly less exacting — will be allowed to remain open.”
Clapp reasons that while retailers in major malls like the Westfield centres will be packed with shoppers, “the socially-distanced and air-conditioned cinema sites in those shopping centres will be required to remain closed.”
“The decision is of course all the more heart-breaking in that it comes in the week that ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ — only the second major title since March — is released into U.K. cinemas,” Clapp added. Cinema chains such as Vue opened on Dec. 11 following the end of the most recent second lockdown, only to stay open for five days and have to shutter yet again on Wednesday.
Clapp concluded by reiterating his call for further government funding for the exhibition sector.
Meanwhile, Julian Bird, chief executive of West End org Society of London Theater and U.K. Theater, has described the move to Tier 3 as “devastating.”
“The past few days have seen venues beginning to reopen with high levels of COVID security, welcoming back enthusiastic, socially distanced audiences,” Bird said. “Theaters across London will now be forced to postpone or cancel planned performances, causing catastrophic financial difficulties for venues, producers and thousands of industry workers – especially the freelancers who make up 70% of the theater workforce.”
“We urge government to recognise the huge strain this has placed on the sector and look at rapid compensation to protect theatres and their staff over Christmas in all areas of the country under Tier 3 restrictions,” Bird added.
Elsewhere, film and TV production was allowed to continue during the last lockdown and that status is not expected to change.
Sports will continue, but behind closed doors, and without audiences. Bars, pubs and restaurants will also have to close, but can operate as takeaways.
Some 4,710 people in London tested on Dec. 11 were positive for COVID-19 — almost double the number from a week ago. London recorded 225 new cases per 100,000 in the seven days to Dec. 8, climbing every day since a lockdown low of 155 per 100,000 on Nov. 26.
Hancock told parliament that a new strain of the virus has been identified, which is spreading across the south of England.
Meanwhile, the wide rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine continues across the U.K. Last week, tens of thousands of people were vaccinated in hospitals. From Monday afternoon, U.K. time, the vaccine has begun being deployed in neighborhood surgeries.