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

31 July 2020, 13:04 | Updated: 6 August 2020, 14:01

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.

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. But critics called it out for its lack of timeframe or financial support.

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.

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 from 1 August – if pilots have been carried out successfully beforehand. Since then, Boris Johnson has delayed that date, announcing that indoor performances could not resume until 15 August at the earliest, now – and that’s really still to be confirmed based on the progress of the pandemic.

But 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…

Read more: UK arts venues to receive £1.57bn in government funding >

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)

We’re currently on Stage Three.

“This means that we are now supporting musicians, dancers and actors, and the technical and operational teams that support performing arts production, to safely resume training, rehearsals and recorded performances where organisations wish and are able to,” the guidance says.

Rehearsals and performances with no audiences can resume in England (check guidance for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in case there’s variation), as long as artists, organisations and venues are COVID-secure and adhering to the latest general work guidance on coronavirus, including with appropriate risk assessments carried out. And performances with socially-distanced audiences can take place outdoors.

“At this time, venues should not permit indoor performances, including drama, comedy and music, to take place in front of a live audience. This is important to mitigate the risks of droplets and aerosol transmission – from either the performer(s) or their audience,” the government says. “Indoor performances to a live audience will resume when the balance of risk allows and subject to the evaluation of pilot events being supportive [and] this will be no earlier than 15 August.”

The government has yet to provide details on the ‘pilots for indoor performances with a limited socially-distanced audience’ aspect of Stage Three, which are currently expected to be taking place with the London Symphony Orchestra at St Luke’s, among other venues.

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 can open with COVID-secure measures on 25 July.

Stage Four – ‘performances allowed indoors and outdoors (with limited socially-distanced audience indoors)’ – will come into effect on 15 August at the earliest pending the success of the above-mentioned pilot performances. Stage Five – the same but with a ‘fuller audience’ – has yet to be announced.

What about amateur bands and choirs?

It’s important to note that the above applies only to professional musicians and ensembles – it’s for “work purposes only” – and that non-professionals participating in performing arts other than for work must follow the government legislation and guidance on meeting people outside your household for their music-making.

Currently, this supposedly means you can play music non-professionally with up to six people in any outdoor space, or indoors in a group of no more than two households.

It is against the law for gatherings of more than 30 people to take place in private homes, including gardens and other outdoor spaces.

So, professional musicians can get back to rehearsing?

Yes. Stage One and Stage Two 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).

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 woodwind and brass instruments?

The government currently advises that professional players “keep to the smallest number of singers or wind and brass players in one space, enhancing social distancing”.

The advice continues: “Until the scientific evidence base is further established, the government is recommending a phased approach to the management of risk when singing and playing wind and brass instruments in both professional and non-professional contexts.”

After this initial phase, there will be “one (or more) further phases” where revisions will be made as evidence develops. This will include revising recommendations around the numbers of singers, wind and brass instrumentalists. Enhanced social-distancing is still expected to remain in place.

Wind and brass playing “in the form of congregation, amateur group or audience participation” is currently not permitted.

What about singers?

Small ensembles may now sing outdoors with worshippers present. There is still no group singing permitted in places of worship, and only one individual can sing indoors “where essential to an act of worship”.

Groups of professional singers must be assembled for “work purposes only”, with “extended social distancing” in place – currently set to 3 metres between each singer for face-to-face activity.

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

Group sizes must be limited, and singing must take place outdoors or with ventilation where possible, and without unnecessary exposure to “audiences, crew and other performers”.

Amateur choirs or groups are still not permitted, unless adhering to current guidance for ‘meeting people outside your household’, see above.

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.

When can amateur choirs and groups start again then?

We don’t know yet. Non-professionals shouldn’t sing or play woodwind or brass instruments with other people “given these activities pose a potentially higher risk of transmission” and “research is ongoing”.

“DCMS has commissioned further scientific studies to be carried out to develop robust scientific data for these activities,” the guidance says. “Existing and emerging evidence will be analysed to assist the development of policy and guidelines.”

The five stages of Dowden’s ‘roadmap’ do not reference the return of non-professional performing arts specifically.