What does the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions mean for concert halls and music venues?

Oliver Dowden has confirmed that amateur and professional choirs across the country will have any remaining restrictions lifted from 19 July

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The UK prime minster Boris Johnson has announced that the COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted from 19 July in England. This means that audiences will be invited back to concert halls, opera houses and music festivals without any social distancing restrictions or the requirement to wear a mask. Audience members will no longer be required to sign in using a QR code when they enter a music venue.

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It is likely, however, that many venues will continue to ask audience members to wear face coverings, despite it no longer being a legal requirement. The prime minister asked the public to use its ‘common sense’ in continuing to wear face masks in enclosed and crowded spaces.

Some music venues with large audiences will be encouraged to use ‘COVID-19 status certification’ – or so-called ‘COVID passports’, a system which allows people to show they have received both COVID-19 vaccinations, have had a negative test result or have natural immunity after recording from COVID-19.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has confirmed a similar move – but with ‘modifications’. Face coverings will still be mandatory and there will be a limit on outdoor gatherings, such as outdoor music events. Social distancing will need to be maintained by audience members.

The leaders of Wales and Northern Ireland have not yet announced whether they will follow the Prime Minister’s lead on this, and may choose to continue the restrictions in their countries. Northern Ireland is due to ease some COVID-19 measures on 26 July, a week after the rest of the UK.

Following the announcement of the lifting of lockdown, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra called on the government for clear guidance on concert hall safety. ‘There is an important task to be done rebuilding public confidence and providing the necessary reassurance that returning to the concert hall and the enjoyment of live performances can be done safely,’ says James Williams, managing director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘This requires from government a robust roadmap that sets out a transition from socially distanced concerts to full-capacity events based on clear criteria, risk management protocols and meaningful, shared data from the Events Research Programme.’

The Grange Festival was one of the music organisations selected to take part in the UK government’s Events Research Programme pilot scheme this month, with audiences returning at full capacity. The programme involves all audience members showing proof of a double vaccination, a negative lateral flow test or proof of antibodies and natural immunity.

There was some criticism of the government’s pilot scheme from the musical community, with the Royal Albert Hall’s chief executive Craig Hassall commenting that the government was prioritising ‘popular events’ such as sporting competitions over concert halls.

There has also been frustrations from choirs, many of whom have not yet been able to rehearse because of COVID- restrictions. BBC Music Magazine‘s columnist Richard Morrison recently pleaded for the return of both amateur and professional choirs. ‘Most of the British population has been jabbed and we still face government disapproval for holding a choir practice or organising a brass band contest. The plain fact is that, without a properly flourishing amateur scene, Britain’s musical life is a shadow of what it was.’

Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, confirmed the release of restrictions on amateur and professional choirs in a video posted to Twitter.

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‘English choral music is one of our great contributions to global culture, so I’ve been desperate to get choirs back again without restrictions,’ he says. ‘I’m happy to say that now, thanks to the huge work we’ve done with the COVID vaccine rollout and everyone’s contribution to that, at stage four of the road map we will remove all remaining restrictions on choirs. That will enable once again up to 70,000 amateur choirs up and down the country and many more organisations to share the joy of choral music again.’