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Panto industry 'on high alert' after fresh public health advice on children's activities

Panto organiser Alan Hughes said parents have been calling to ask whether their show can still go ahead.

Alan Hughes' Aladdin is due to open in two weeks' time.
Alan Hughes' Aladdin is due to open in two weeks' time.
Image: Alan Hughes

THE PANTOMIME INDUSTRY is calling for clarity on new public health advice relating to children’s activities as shows get ready to open for the festive period. 

It emerged yesterday that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) had recommended children avoid certain events, including nativities and other similar seasonal events. 

Public health officials have also advised against indoor play dates, birthday parties or sleepovers. Recommendations that children over the age of nine wear masks are to be considered by government. 

Speaking to The Journal, pantomime producer Alan Hughes said he was “in total shock” when he heard about the new public health advice.

“We were being told the NPHET wasn’t going to make any recommendations yesterday and then it was all very vague,” he said. “It’s saying seasonal events and community events – is that the local little nativity play or does it mean professional theatre?”

Hughes will take to the stage at the National Stadium in Dublin with the rest of the cast of Aladdin in two weeks’ time and some other pantos are opening this weekend.

Cabinet was not due to make a decision on advice from NPHET until Tuesday but discussions about the new advice are taking place today. 

“The vagueness of it has put the industry on high alert today and it’s uncalled for – there needs to be clarity from the department and Tuesday is too late,” Hughes said.

He said there have already been cancellations by school and corporate groups in recent weeks and parents have been calling the box office since the latest advice emerged.

Hughes said he and his partner Karl Broderick have spent €300,000 on the show this year and he said it would be “a disaster” if further restrictions were placed on the industry in the run up to Christmas.

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“Those few words, one line in a NPHET letter to the minister, could ruin an industry for Christmas and costs thousands,” he said.

“You could see thousands of jobs going over Christmas, the entertainment industry which has suffered so much would be left high and dry. They were the first to go and last to come back, there are people on the cast who have barely worked all year.

It’s a huge worry, the financial stress of it. We’re small independent Irish producers who put on family entertainment every year, we’re not huge promoters, we’re the ones who are stuck with the debt at the end if it all goes belly-up. I’m worried sick about it.

Hughes said he is confident the show can go ahead safely as they were already planning to run at 60% capacity.

“We have wonderful ventilation, all the procedures are in place; social distancing, everyone has to be checked for a Covid cert,” he said. “I understand this is all about public health, but if children are allowed to go to school and wear masks, surely they should be allowed to go to a safe and controlled environment for entertainment and wear masks there. Surely that’s better than cancelling all of this entertainment for Christmas. 

“People are crying out for a bit of entertainment and it’s not just going on the day to the panto, it’s the weeks looking forward to it – parents tell us children talk about it for weeks. For that to be taken away now would be devastating.”

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