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

15 April 2021, 16:58 | Updated: 15 April 2021, 17:00

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 where in England’s roadmap out of lockdown amateur rehearsals and live music fit.

A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK and periods of self-isolation and lockdown, be they regional or national, became an increasingly expected part of everyday life.

After a summer where workplaces, businesses, venues and outdoor gatherings cautiously opened up and grew in size – and some live music returned – autumn and winter 2020 in the UK saw further national lockdowns. Essential work continued in COVID-safe environments, and this meant that professional music-making, including distanced rehearsals and performances delivered virtually, was able to continue.

Finally, a glimmer of hope for life returning to something closer to ‘normal’ was delivered on 22 February, when PM Boris Johnson announced his roadmap taking England ‘irreversibly’ out of lockdown, following the success of the UK’s monumental vaccine effort and pending certain criteria around controlling the virus being met.

But what are the rules for amateur music, and when can the arts open its venue doors and invite audiences back?

Read more: How safe is your instrument? The COVID science on singing, woodwind and brass >

What are the dates of Boris Johnson’s roadmap and where does music fit in?

  • March 8 – Schools reopened

One-to-one socialising was permitted outdoors and care home residents were allowed to receive one visitor.

  • March 29Outdoor meetups

This one saw outdoor gatherings within the ‘rule of six’ permitted, as well as the return of outdoor sport and some travelling out of local areas (but no overnight stays). Leisure-time music saw no sign of being allowed, and confusingly, according to charity Making Music, amateur music groups are still not permitted to meet up, even outdoors where leisure-time sports teams are kicking balls to each other and playing freely.

Making Music chief exec Barbara Eifler said: “I am puzzled by this unwarranted distinction between amateur football, gardening or photography clubs and community music activity. Last autumn, when meeting was permitted, Making Music members demonstrated their ability to risk assess their sessions, implement required mitigations and rehearse safely. Why not let them meet now and experience the healing effect of group singing and playing?”

  • April 12 – Non-essential shops, pub gardens and gyms open

A big one. Non-essential shops, hairdressers, pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating, and indoor leisure facilities like gyms were able to open. People still can’t spend time inside entertainment facilities, so, even though zoos, theme parks, drive-in cinemas and libraries have the go-ahead to operate, music venues remain closed. And due to the focus on meeting up outside only, still under the ‘rule of six’, the government has been reluctant to let theatres and concert venues open, even in a limited capacity. And, as above, no choir, band or orchestra can meet outdoors, except in socially permitted groups of six or two household.

  • May 17 – Concert halls, theatres and other venues open to limited audiences

Concert halls, theatres and other venues are allowed to open to the public, along with cinemas, play areas, hotels and hostels, and indoor dining at restaurants and pubs can go ahead on this, the biggest lifting of restrictions. The ‘rule of six’ still applies to social parties, but this stage of the PM’s roadmap allows concerts performed to audiences to go ahead for the first time in 2021.

Wigmore Hall and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall – the home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Classic FM’s Orchestra in the North West – have already announced concerts welcoming live audiences to return in a reduced capacity.

  • June 21 – All legal limits on social contact removed

In the words of the government, “it is hoped all legal limits on social contact can be removed” and the ambition is for nightclubs and large-scale events like festivals and big performances can return to our lives.

“This will also guide decisions on whether all limits can be removed on weddings and other life events,” HM gov says. Watch this space…

Other UK nation’s key dates may vary.

So professional musicians have been able to return places of work and rehearse?

Yes. Arts professionals and organisations are able to rehearse in their places of work and present online performances, as long as safe social distancing is adhered to.

When Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown for England back in October, 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.

It’s worth noting that there is still 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?

Once lockdown lifts to allow indoor gatherings, the above COVID-safe guidance will apply 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’. If due to unforeseen circumstances, full national lockdowns are imposed again, 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.

Professional musicians have been able to rehearse since last summer
Professional musicians have been able to rehearse since last summer. 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 music workplaces, the government does stipulate extra caution, including limiting numbers of performers where possible, and favouring outdoor performances over indoor ones, as well as 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.