Britain Shuts Borders, but the Shows Go On

Naman Ramachandran
·5-min read

As the U.K. enforces tough new rules for those entering the country, film and television productions are set to take a direct hit.

Until recently, film and TV industry workers were exempt from having to quarantine upon entering the U.K., but that allowance was removed from Jan. 18. From Feb. 15, it’s mandatory for all visitors to the U.K., including citizens and residents, to quarantine for 10 days and take a PCR coronavirus test on days two and eight of their self-isolation. Failure to take the first test results in a £1,000 ($1,378) fine, while a £2,000 ($2,757) penalty applies to those who fail to take the second test, as well as an automatic extension of the quarantine to 14 days.

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“As an industry, we’re very agile and able to cope with these kinds of things because we effectively bake those restrictions into our production plans,” producer Guy Heeley tells Variety. Heeley has recent experience dealing with the process while working on Joe Wright-directed project “Cyrano,” which shot in Sicily during lockdown. The production flew in a few actors, including Peter Dinklage, Ben Mendelsohn and Kelvin Harrison Jr., from the U.S., who had to isolate for 14 days.

Mandatory quarantine will also have the effect of driving up costs, but “none of this is a surprise to anybody,” says Heeley. “We are all having to watch the government announcements on a regular basis, and integrate any new rules and regulations into any production plan going forward.”

Another senior film producer who’s currently crewing up stoically described the additional expense to Variety as “part of a raft of additional costs to production to make films in a pandemic.”

The new quarantine rules, announced by U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Tuesday, are designed to contain mutant variants of the virus, including the recently discovered South Africa and Brazil strains. Travellers from a ‘red list’ of 33 countries, including South Africa, Portugal, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, aren’t allowed to enter England. U.K. citizens and residents, and Irish citizens, are allowed in but are required to quarantine for 10 days in government-designated hotels and will be charged £1,750 ($2,411) for it. Non-compliance can result in fines up to £10,000 ($13,784). All international visitors to Scotland, including residents, must isolate in quarantine hotels.

One BAFTA-winning producer, who is planning to bring talent to the U.K. from a non ‘red list’ country for his upcoming production, notes that the quarantine period is now built into contracts with actors. The deals require them to come in earlier, and there are no additional salary costs. But, in the case of technical crew, many of whom are paid by the week, the cost adds up, particularly if you’re bringing over a large group.

“You’re looking at potentially thousands of pounds for every person,” the producer notes.

Mercifully, the “Test to Release” scheme remains in place. Under this program, after self-isolating for five days upon arrival in England from a non ‘red list’ country, passengers can take a pre-booked coronavirus test from a private provider and leave quarantine if found negative.

“What I really like about the scheme is that you can test your way out of quarantine,” the producer adds. “If you have a negative test, that to me makes a lot [more] sense than saying, ‘Everyone has to do 10 days, no matter what,’ because the tests are good enough to be able to identify the various strains.”

The producer also mentions the pressure on A-list cast as there is so much riding on their well-being, especially since they’re the only ones without masks during takes. He is hoping for an exclusion on acting talent, similar to elite sportspersons who are required to self-isolate for 10 days but can directly travel to and from sport venues specifically to play or train.

On the subject of actors, Heeley reveals that a project he was working on until just two weeks ago is now delayed, because, “a couple of the actors involved were not keen on traveling to the U.K. and working in the U.K. at the moment, which is understandable, and on the basis that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Elsewhere, those who are exempt from travel quarantine are “people engaged in urgent or essential work for the BBC’s broadcasting transmission network and services,” but this doesn’t apply to other broadcasters.

“Our main concern is our relatively small group of foreign correspondents and teams who are specialists in foreign news and travel frequently, and they’re not based in bureaus around the world like you’d have with a big organization,” a senior executive with a BBC rival news org tells Variety.

The exec highlights the strain caused on news staff when they travel abroad for a story, return to the U.K. only to enter quarantine immediately, and then possibly travel again as soon as they emerge from it. “In reality, what happens is it will dampen the editorial of our foreign news reporting,” explains the executive. “We can’t do as much eyewitness news because it’s not possible for people to do this.”

A positive test for all incoming personnel will result in a further 10 days of quarantine from the date of the test. As before, a negative test taken up to 72 hours prior to departure is still required to travel.

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