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

27 November 2020, 08:48

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 its five-stage roadmap, how the ‘rule of six’ applies, and the impact of lockdowns.

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.

The above can be rolled back depending on what ‘tier’ an area is classed as in the government’s new system based on local COVID alert levels (LCALs), and of course if there are national lockdowns. On 23 October Wales went into a national, two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown, and Northern Ireland soon imposed similar restrictions, lifted on 13 November. And on Saturday 31 October, PM Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown for England, starting on Thursday 5 November with an initial period of four weeks.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has taken to Twitter to clarify that professional orchestras and choirs – which of course can’t “work from home” effectively – are able to continue to attend their places of work to rehearse and perform for online streamed events. After lockdown, the rules for performances go back to depending on what coronavirus restrictions tier your region is in.

Below is the guidance we have for the performing arts world so far.

Read more: How safe is your instrument? We reveal the science on singing, woodwind and brass so far >

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 August, we were 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 could take place as long as the government’s guidance on distancing and limited audiences is adhered too. The recommendation was 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.

When the government implemented the ‘rule of six’, amateur performing arts could continue with groups larger than six only in COVID-secure environments, and as long as groups of more than six didn’t mingle socially.

On 31 October, however, Boris Johnson announced a four-week national lockdown for England, commencing on Thursday 5 November. This saw all entertainment venues closed to the public again, and all non-essential international travel banned until further notice. Once the second lockdown is lifted, the above activity will likely take place again within new timeframes based on the government’s tier system for England.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted, “Arts venues are places of work, so people can come into them for work, if it cannot be undertaken from home. This includes rehearsals and performance. Audiences are not permitted.”

Once lockdown lifts, performing arts come under restrictions introduced by regional tiers, detailed here.

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.

Then the roadmap for reopening arts venues was paused on 31 October, when Boris Johnson announced a four-week second national lockdown for England, commencing on Thursday 5 November. Venues such as theatres and concert halls were asked to close again all over the country, for four weeks – possible longer – until further notice. As professional musicians’ places of work, they could still be used for rehearsing and streaming performances online, but audiences cannot attend.

Now venues will reopen according to the tier of restrictions they they fall in (see below).

So professional musicians can get back to their places of work and rehearse?

Yes. Stages One to Four of the government’s ‘roadmap’ for the return of the arts allowed professional artists and groups to rehearse again, as long as safe social distancing is adhered to.

Once Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown for England, culture secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed “Arts venues are places of work, so people can come into them for work, if it cannot be undertaken from home. This includes rehearsals and performance.” Audiences are not permitted during periods of lockdown, when the public is advised to stay at home as much as possible.

Audiences can return once lockdown is lifted, in Tier 1 and Tier 2 areas, and must be capped at 50 percent capacity, or either 4,000 people outdoors or 1,000 people indoors in Tier 1 (Medium alert), and 50 percent capacity, or either 2,000 people outdoors or 1,000 people indoors in Tier 2 (High alert). Tier 3 (Very High alert) regions don’t allow for audiences to attend events.

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.

Visit www.gov.uk/guidance for full guidance on regional tiers, and always refer to government sources for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

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

What about amateur bands and choirs?

Outside of a national lockdown, the above guidance applied to non-professional musicians and ensembles, as well as professionals participating in performing arts. When amateur music-making can take place, it’s largely expected to comply to the ‘rule of six’, only being except if it’s an ‘organised activity’. And, once full national lockdowns have been imposed, these activities must be paused.

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.”

All guidance for non-professional musicians has so far taken into account the most up-to-date advice for meeting people outside your household, something that’s allowed outside full national lockdowns.

This was all before the different nations – Wales, Northern Ireland and most recently England – imposed second national lockdowns to prevent the continued spread of coronavirus. The second national lockdown in England, announced by PM Boris Johnson to commence from Thursday 5 November, bans entertainment venues, including theatres and concert halls, from opening until further notice, and the instruction once again is for all people to stay at home where possible. So the above activities were largely on hold until lockdown lifted on 2 December, and people are to abide by tiered regional restrictions.

On 26 November, the government announced that door-to-door carol singing could commence after lockdown is lifted.

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.