By Chris Cooke | Published on Friday 10 July 2020
Outdoor live entertainment will be allowed to return in England from tomorrow, the government has announced. In the latest relaxation of COVID-19 lockdown rules, music, theatre and other cultural delights will be allowed to resume in the open air, albeit with some social distancing rules still in place.
There isn’t currently any firm timeline for when indoor live entertainment can return, the risks of COVID-19 spreading being much higher indoors. Though the government also stated that it is working with a number of cultural industry organisations to identify some pilot projects to test the logistical challenges of staging socially distanced performances within indoor venues.
Guidance issued for the open-air events that will now be allowed to go ahead says that promoters should: reduce event capacities so that the social distancing of the audience is possible; sell all tickets online and – if possible – use mobile ticketing, making track and trace easier should a COVID-19 spike occur at an event; and ensure the customary floor markings are in place to help audience members keep their distance.
As for what happens on stage, “performers, conductors and musicians must observe social distancing wherever possible”, and “singing and the playing of brass and wind instruments in groups or in front of an audience is limited to professionals only”.
The latter relates to a specific issue with getting live performance back up and running while the COVID-19 pandemic continues – which is the increased risk of the virus spreading if it’s a performer who is infected, thanks to all the spit they emit when projecting their voices or blowing into their instruments. The assumption in the government’s latest guidance seems to be that professional performers can be trusted to emit their spit in a more responsible way.
Interestingly, the government is also commissioning some specific research on this issue. That study will consider “the risks associated with singing and brass instruments” in the context of COVID, with Public Health England, the BBC, the Royal Opera House and scientists from Imperial College London and Bristol University all involved. “This will help inform our work on getting the performing arts fully back up and running safely, by testing what can be done safely”, the government has declared.
Announcing all this, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “From [Saturday] we can all enjoy performances outdoors with social distancing, and we are working hard to get indoor audiences back as soon as we safely can, following pilots. Our scientific research project will also help speed up this journey. Combined with our £1.57 billion rescue package, this is a comprehensive plan to help our brilliant arts organisations weather the COVID storm and bounce back stronger”.
Alongside all that, the government has also reconfirmed that an upcoming relaxation of planning laws in England – part of Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson’s strategy to tackle the COVID-caused economic slump by getting lots of buildings built – will not result in cultural venues losing their protection.
The Music Venue Trust had expressed concern that moves to make it easier for builders and property developers to demolish buildings and convert city centre properties into flats could result in venues being evicted or put at risk because of future noise complaints by new residential neighbours. Changes to planning rules in recent years have helped stop that happening, and MVT wanted reassurance that Johnson’s ‘build, build, build’ strategy wouldn’t see those changes reversed.
After culture minister Caroline Dinenage told Parliament earlier this week that venues would still be protected despite planning rule changes, the government’s Housing & Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said yesterday: “The UK has a leading cultural industry that is the envy of the world. Our theatres, concert halls and live music performance venues are one of the reasons that the country has this reputation and they are essential to our national culture”.
“That’s why we are protecting them for the enjoyment of future generations”, he went on. “Alongside the £1.57 billion investment to protect Britain’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions, I am ensuring the buildings that represent these institutions can’t be destroyed and are properly protected in the planning system”.
It’s been a busy week for culture-specific COVID-19 announcements from the UK government, starting with that £1.57 billion of specific funding for COVID-hit cultural businesses, then a VAT cut on tickets, and now the announcement that open-air live performances can resume.
That said, music industry organisations still have a number of concerns. In particular that certain strands of the music industry could be excluded from the £1.57 billion funding programme, especially those strands that don’t usually benefit from or even seek government grants.
There are also concerns that the government’s general COVID support schemes will wind down before many in the music and creative industries are actually back in operation. Plus, of course, there remain all the freelancers who have fallen through the gaps of the government’s COVID schemes and have so far received no support at all.
Whether any of those concerns will be addressed in the next week remains to be seen.