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The government has allowed gatherings in 1000s for football matches, and had live audiences at the Brit Awards and a live music pilot event in Liverpool. But without warning, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced on 18 May that only six singers may gather inside to perform or rehearse while government scientists gathered further data on the effects of aerosol transmission from singing and wind instruments.
This unexpected deviation from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promised roadmap to Covid-19 recovery came just one day after Dowden’s junior, Caroline Dineage, had said at a conference that socially-distanced rehearsals would be permitted.
The lack of warning and the apparent unfairness of the decision has been denounced by all sectors of the music industry and many health professionals. On the back of Dineage’s words, Guildford’s Vivace Chorus held a rehearsal on the evening of Tuesday, 18 May. The following morning, on hearing Dowden’s u-turn, it tweeted ‘Here we are last night. Really spaced, huge venue, lots of protocols. Can’t tell you how lovely it was to hear people singing around you. @DCMS – this is a safe, managed way to help people with their wellbeing, get singing back on track and give our professionals their jobs back.’
Jeremy Backhouse, conductor of the Vivace Chorus, the Vasari Singers and the Salisbury Community Choir, had conducted at the rehearsal and tweeted, ‘@DCMS you simply cannot play around with people’s lives and wellbeing like this. The rehearsal we had last night was so joyous, conducted under the strictest conditions, in the safest possible environment (unlike pubs) and ‘gave us our lives back’ to quote one singer.’
Other choirs, such as Epsom Choral Society and Northampton Bach Choir, expressed their pleasure that at least one choir had managed a rehearsal before Dowden shut the doors, but exasperation at the decision. ‘We did this in Autumn and we did NOT spread anything around. Can’t understand why the rules have been tightened when we’ve PROVED we can operate safely,’ the choir tweeted.
The Musicians’ Union (MU) has expressed anger at Dowden’s announcement and urged members to sign the Project Get Singing petition. Phil Kear, MU Assistant General Secretary, said, ‘We have registered with the DCMS our dissatisfaction with this particular restriction on indoor singing, plus underlined its potential effect on many of our members. We will continue to press ministers for a relaxation as soon as possible. Organised amateur sport can go ahead with unlimited numbers indoors, subject to building capacity, and we are at a loss to understand why choirs have been singled out under the guidance at this time.’
The MU argues that the choral sector had been led to believe rehearsals could resume indoors with up to 30 singers and that many professional choir leaders had paid for venues and publicity in that knowledge.
‘The main concern from government appears to be a supposed increased risk of Covid-19 infection through droplets released by singers,’ it said. ‘However, research carried out last year indicated that the increased risk from singing, as opposed to simply talking, was minimal and could be managed via social distancing and other mitigations. Certainly, singing would not present any greater risk than many indoor sporting activities which are now permitted with no such restriction on numbers.’
28 UK singing and choral organisations have been collaborating for some time to find a safe way to restart choral activity. The group, including The Association of British Choral Directors, The Association of Teachers of Singing, the National Association of Choirs and the Choir Schools Association, argues that the health of people and the economy are equally threatened by continuing the restrictions.
The Singing Network UK, chaired by Making Music, the national association for leisure-time music, said, ‘A clear plan of how to resume singing is now urgently needed to support the mental well-being of the two million people who usually sing regularly in groups, and the nation as a whole, including choirs’ audiences, congregations and families.’
Making Music urges each and every choir member to write to their MP and members of the House of Lords, asking them to submit parliamentary questions and to take the matter up with Caroline Dineage. Making Music chief executive Barbara Eifler told the Independent, ‘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?’
The ‘Project Get Singing’ petition on www.change.org was created by British Citizens’ Award-winner Naveen Arles BCA FRSA. A community choir leader himself, he asks anyone with a love of hearing or participating in choral music to sign. ‘We’re taking our direct action step, campaigning to get singing groups the same treatment as all other activities, so we can get back to our work of supporting our communities.’