LONDON — Last Monday, Adrian Vinken, the chief executive of the Theater Royal in Plymouth, England, steeled himself, then loaded up Zoom.
Around 240 of the theater’s staff members were waiting online, he recalled in a telephone interview. Those included “people who’d worked for us 30 years and given us everything,” he said, as well as young workers who had only recently nabbed a job at the three-stage venue, one of the Britain’s largest outside London.
Mr. Vinken then told the employees that almost a third of their jobs were at risk, and many would soon be laid off. With the theater closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it had lost more than 90 percent of its income.
“It hurt like hell,” Mr. Vinken said.
For weeks, prominent British actors — including Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Judi Dench — had been warning the government that the country’s cultural venues were at risk of collapse unless it threw them a lifeline.
On Thursday, it seemed like help might come. That evening, Oliver Dowden, Britain’s culture secretary, announced a road map to reopen performing arts venues. The plan set out five stages, eventually including indoor shows with limited audiences, then, later, larger crowds. But disappointment soon set in when Mr. Dowden gave no target dates, or commitments of financial assistance.
Within moments of the announcement, it was being mocked on social media. “It was an entirely pointless exercise,” Mr. Vinken said.
Britain’s cultural sector increasingly stands alone in Europe. It has been the slowest to reopen after lockdown, for a start. Museums in England can reopen from July 4, although most will come back gradually over the next few months; some theatrical performances and concerts have also been announced for the summer, but only as drive-in events. (“Six,” the hit West End musical, announced a six-week parking-lot tour on Monday.)
On the continent, museums have been open for weeks (in some cases, months), orchestras are performing again and theaters are announcing their coming seasons, albeit in venues with social distancing.
In France, Germany, Italy or Belgium, where the arts are heavily subsidized by the state, performing companies and museums can survive with reduced ticket sales. But in Britain, where government funding is much lower and organizations rely on commercial income, most are unprepared for a future in which they can only admit a fraction of their usual audience.
As in many European countries, workers in Britain’s culture sector are covered by economy-wide job protection programs. But, so far, the government here has yet to announce a specific rescue package for the arts. In May, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced that all cultural workers who lost their jobs or couldn’t find work would be covered by a national unemployment plan until August 2021. In June, Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, announced a 1 billion euro fund to get the country’s culture sector back up and running, on top of generous support already provided by Germany’s regions.
For months, Britain’s cultural stars — from the conductor Simon Rattle to the organizers of the Glastonbury music festival — have been arguing and, at times, almost begging for action from the government.
Acting in a coordinated media campaign, actors and theaters have called for the government’s job retention program, in which it pays about 80 percent of furloughed workers’ wages, to be extended until venues can reopen without social distancing. As a backup, they are calling for a huge government loan program to help them stage work in half-empty halls.
A statement on June 19 from some of the most prominent British names in classical music, including Mr. Rattle, said, “We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world class industry fall by the wayside whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.”
Ed Vaizey, a former culture secretary and member of the governing Conservative party, said in a telephone interview that comparing Britain to France or Germany was “slightly invidious”: Those countries have always given more to the arts. But, he added, “at least in France and Germany, politicians are not embarrassed about the arts. They support them and understand their importance.”
A spokeswoman for Britain’s culture ministry said, “We are working with the sector to get it fully back up and running as soon as possible.” She declined to answer a list of questions.
Katie Mitchell, the British theater and opera director who works extensively on the continent, said in a telephone interview that the differences between Britain and its neighbors were stark. “As soon as the pandemic hit, I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be really hard to earn a living here for at least two years,’” she said. “Whereas I was certain that I would be able to work in mainland Europe soon, because I felt that the sector would be very, very protected.”
“That has proved to be the case,” she added. She is working on confirmed productions at theaters in Berlin; Hamburg, Germany; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Paris, she said; there had been no talk of layoffs at any of those playhouses, she added, although they had asked her to stay “strictly in budget.”
In contrast, a play Ms. Mitchell was going to direct at the National Theater in London in October — “Outline. Transit. Kudos.,” based on novels by Rachel Cusk — has been canceled. She was uncertain about the future of a planned opera at the Royal Opera House, she said. Both venues were expecting to lay off staff members, she added.
In interviews with the leaders of more than a dozen British arts organizations for this article, all said the government had reacted well at the beginning of the pandemic by offering the furlough program.
Arts Council England, a major funding body, also reacted quickly, many administrators said. In March, it announced it would award 160 million pounds (about $200 million) in emergency grants to keep venues afloat until the fall. Another body, the Heritage Lottery Fund, had announced £50 million, about $62 million, to help others, including museums.
Those snap actions reassured arts leaders in the short term, but as the lockdown dragged on many felt the government had become more focused on developing guidelines for reopening than dealing with the financial gloom ahead. In May, Mr. Dowden formed a nine-person “Cultural Renewal Task Force,” made up of industry leaders from sports, the arts and entertainment, to “develop creative solutions” for organizations to get back to work.
“We’re great in the U.K. at setting up a committee, but what we need is action,” Cindy Sughrue, the director of the Charles Dickens Museum in London, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve been surveyed to death,” she added.
What institutions need now is money to prevent “catastrophic” layoffs, said Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of the English National Ballet and a member of the Cultural Renewal Task Force, in a telephone interview. But the committee had not been discussing financial support she said; that was not its remit.
Mr. Dowden has repeatedly promised that a rescue package is coming. “I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed,” he said in an interview with the Evening Standard newspaper on June 8. “Of course I want to get the money flowing,” he added.
But how much the government allocates is out of his hands: It will depend on Britain’s Treasury, led by Rishi Sunak — known as a “Star Wars” fan, but not an art aficionado — and, ultimately, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On June 24, The Financial Times reported that the prime minister’s office was working on a rescue package, but quoted unnamed sources who said it was “not imminent,” and “likely to be on a significantly smaller scale” than arts leaders requested.
But many remain hopeful something will emerge. “Although it’s taken much longer than it’s taken in Germany,” said Nicholas Hytner, a former artistic director of the National Theater, in an email, “I believe that there will be a big rescue package here, and I believe it will happen soon.” The government understood that Britain’s culture institutions are an economic success story, he added, generating more in taxes than they take, and drawing tourists to the country.
Mr. Vinken, the director of the Plymouth theater, said extra funding was needed as soon as possible to prevent further layoffs. Without additional government intervention, he would have to make more in October, he said, and would have to consider mothballing the theater not long after that.
But, he said, he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “You have to have hope, don’t you?” he said. “We’re in show business here. It’s all about turning dreams into reality.”