What is the UK government’s latest guidance for rehearsals, concerts and live music venues?

23 September 2020, 13:58 | Updated: 24 September 2020, 15:40

Guidance for live music to return
Guidance for live music to return. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

An updating summary of the government’s most recent guidance for people returning to work in classical music and other performing arts – including the timelines for its five-stage roadmap, and how the ‘rule of six’ applies.

The government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has had guidance for working safely during coronavirus since 11 May. But it wasn’t until 9 July that a Performing Arts section was added.

Just before that (26 June), culture secretary Oliver Dowden set out a five-stage ‘roadmap’ to help theatres and concert halls reopen and operate realistically.

On 5 July, the long-awaited news of a cash rescue package came. £1.57bn in emergency government funding for UK arts venues was followed by a £33 million funding pledge from Arts Council England.

It was later announced that outdoor performances can take place in England from Saturday 11 July. And on 17 July, the government outlined major changes to lockdown rules, slated for August onwards, with indoor performances watched by a live audience allowed to return on 15 August.

So where does that leave concert halls and other arts venues right now in terms of realistic working practices? And what can professional and amateur musicians on the ground actually do to start making music again, according to current guidance? From distanced rehearsals to reduced audiences, here’s what we know so far about how changing COVID-19 measures currently impact music-making…

Read more: Live indoor performances can resume in England as lockdown rules are eased >

What is the five-stage roadmap?

On 26 June, the government published a five-stage ‘roadmap’ for performing arts to get back up and running. The stages are:

• Stage One: Rehearsal and training (no audiences)
• Stage Two: Performances for broadcast and recording purposes
• Stage Three: Performances outdoors with an audience and pilots for indoor performances with a limited socially-distanced audience
• Stage Four: Performances allowed indoors and outdoors (but with a limited socially-distanced audience indoors)
• Stage Five: Performances allowed indoors / outdoors (with a fuller audience indoors)

As of 15 August, we are at Stage Four of the roadmap, with indoor performances allowed to return with limited audiences in England (check guidance for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in case there’s variation).

Socially distanced indoor and outdoor performances can take place as long as the government’s guidance on distancing and limited audiences is adhered too. The recommendation is for organisations to “continue to work outdoors wherever possible”.

Rehearsals and performances with no audiences have been happening and performances with socially-distanced audiences have been taking place.

Now that the government has implemented the ‘rule of six’, amateur performing arts can continue with groups larger than six only in COVID-secure environments, and as long as groups of more than six don’t mingle socially (see culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s position on this below).

What is the government’s latest guidance on rehearsals and concert halls?
What is the government’s latest guidance on rehearsals and concert halls? Picture: Getty

Has the government set out timelines for the roadmap?

Not exactly. It seems to be a more reactive process where the government announces timelines with only some, or no, notice. Stage One and Stage Two of the five-stage ‘roadmap’ were announced on 9 July, and Stage Three was announced on the same day with the view to come into effect on Saturday 11 July.

Dance and ballet studios are treated differently to other rehearsal or training spaces, and expected to follow the rules of indoor gyms. This means they opened with COVID-secure measures on 25 July.

Stage Four – ‘performances allowed indoors and outdoors (with limited socially-distanced audience indoors)’ – was confirmed on 13 August, to come into effect on 15 August.

Stage Five – the same but with a ‘fuller audience’ – has yet to be announced.

What about amateur bands and choirs?

The above guidance now applies to non-professional musicians and ensembles, as well as professionals participating in performing arts. However – crucially – amateur music making is only exempt from the ‘rule of six’ if it is an organised activity.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted: “Due to the rapid spread due to social contact, I’m afraid we can no longer permit exemptions for indoor grassroots sport & amateur performing arts and choirs,” – with the caveat that “none of these restrictions will be in place longer than necessary & we will keep them under review.”

But then, a day later, he clarified: “These activities can continue with larger groups than 6 but only where this is organised activity, follows relevant guidance & crucially there is no mixing of each group of up to 6.”

The important point, for the government, is that any meet-ups for amateur music-making should be in a COVID-19 Secure venue or public outdoor place. And non-professional performing arts activity, including choirs, orchestras or drama groups, can continue to rehearse or perform together where this is planned activity in line with the professional performing arts guidance above, as long as there is no mingling or interaction between groups of more than six at any time.

“People should continue to socially distance from those they do not live with wherever possible,” the guidance says. “And venues, performers and audiences [should] ensure two-metre distancing applies wherever possible.”

The government does maintain: “Social interactions should be limited to a group of no more than two households (indoors and out) or up to six people from different households (if outdoors).” So guidance for non-professional musicians takes into account the most up-to-date advice for meeting people outside your household.

So, professional musicians can get back to rehearsing and performing?

Yes. Stages One to Four of the government’s ‘roadmap’ for the return of the arts allow professional artists and groups to rehearse again, as long as safe social distancing is adhered to. It’s worth noting that there is currently a higher level of risk perceived for singing, and woodwind and brass instruments (see below), and even after scientific testing the government does recommend extra steps, including limiting player numbers, continuing to favour outdoor performance, and adhering strictly to distancing, are taken to mitigate against this risk.

Orchestra pits and other designated band areas on the small side have been identified by the government as presenting extra risk as well, so it has put in place extra steps to maintain safety in those areas – including spreading musicians out beyond the pit, using markings to ensure social distancing is maintained, and avoiding having musicians face-to-face, with protective barriers required if that can’t be avoided.

Professional musicians can start rehearsing again
Professional musicians can start rehearsing again. Picture: Getty

What is the specific guidance for singers, and woodwind and brass instruments?

The government originally advised that professional players “keep to the smallest number of singers or wind and brass players in one space, enhancing social distancing”, i.e. making the distances bigger to three metres.

Read more: Cathedral choirs given £2m lifeline, as they fight to survive COVID-19 >

But now brass, wind and singing is allowed, for professionals as well as non-professionals (non-professionals in groups of six people, or under), to continue with the same distancing and rules as all other music-making. The government does stipulate extra caution, including limiting numbers of performers where possible, still favouring outdoor performances over indoor ones, limiting the socially-distanced audience members, and limiting social gathering opportunities at rehearsals or performances.

The government’s step-by-step guidance for the return of singing, and professional music-making with brass and wind instruments, can be seen in more detail here.

Visit: www.gov.uk to find out more.