DCMS Department for Digital, Culture, Media and SportNew government guidance for people who work and participate in performing arts fails to properly account for the voluntary arts sector with significant gaps evident in several sections.

Updated guidelines for the safe return of performing arts activities in England have been published (9 July 2020) by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. As the voice of amateur participants across the UK & Ireland, Voluntary Arts was invited by DCMS to comment on the draft guidance for people who work in performing arts, including arts organisations, venue operators and participants. Having read the newly published guidelines, we are concerned that the particular points we raised about non-professional arts activity do not appear to have been addressed at this time. 

There appears to be a distinction between professional and non-professional performing arts activity which prioritises allowing the professional sector to resume under the guidelines but with little acknowledgement of the important contribution made by the amateur sector in terms of its vital contribution to wellbeing and local economic activity. The pandemic has raised significant issues around social isolation and the important role of amateur performing arts groups in alleviating these problems must be recognised urgently. 

Particular points state that singing and playing wind and brass instruments in a non-professional context is not permitted and that 'fixed team' approaches to minimise the number of people each person comes into contact with is "not recommended" (4.3) in non-professional contexts unless all participants are from the same household or support bubble. While we recognise the differences between these sectors, many of these risks are no different in non-professional performances and rehearsals and should not be treated differently. There is no explanation or justification for this approach in the guidance.

Voluntary Arts is calling for an urgent redrafting or updating of these guidelines in order to provide clarity and support for the voluntary arts sector which plays an integral role in the maintenance of healthy and active communities across the country. We continue to engage with government representatives in the other nations across the UK & Ireland to ensure guidance is appropriate and considered.

Barbara Eifler, Executive Director of Making Music, said:

We are very disappointed that the new DCMS guidance does not permit leisure-time music groups to meet and rehearse again at all if they involve singing or wind or brass instruments, and only in groups of 6 from different households (England) where other instruments are concerned.

Groups would be perfectly capable of managing the risks associated with meeting, in the same way that professionals can. Groups right now are mainly anxious about being able to rehearse again – not yet necessarily perform in front of an audience; and rehearsals are much easier to manage in terms of risk control.

DCMS has also not factored in that leisure-time music is a significant economic factor in the whole music ecology – so not restoring income to the freelance musicians it engages to the tune of £86.4m a year or the rental income it provides to rehearsal venues across the UK, will mean that DCMS will fail in its aim to restore the music sector to full health, unless the amateurs return too.

We understand research already exists in Germany, Denmark, Norway and Austria which provides clear insights into how amateurs could meet and rehearse, and we urge the government to allow the amateur sector to re-open as soon as possible.

This is a matter of priority not just economically for tens of thousands of freelance professionals engaged by groups, but it is a matter of priority for the mental well-being of the nation which has taken such a knock in the last 4 months.

We invite the Secretary of State to talk to us and visit one of the groups affected, to enable him to see the full picture of the impact on participants during the last 4 months.


Details of areas needing clarification or updates

Although it is clear that "This guidance applies to ... performers (actors, singers, dancers, musicians, other performers)" etc, Section 4 provides detailed guidance on singing and playing music but nothing specific on the other performing arts (acting, dancing etc). In particular there is no distinction between the guidance for professionals and non-professionals in these areas as there is for music. If that is deliberate and non-professional acting and dancing is subject to the same guidance as for professionals that would be welcome but is unclear at the moment.

Section 3 appears to suggest (particularly with the absence of direct references to artforms other than music in Section 4) that non-professional performing arts activities other than singing and playing music (acting, dancing etc), which can be conducted within social distancing guidelines will be permitted, without having to follow the guidelines on social mixing and the numbers of non-household members who may meet as a group (as is required for playing music - excluding singing, wind and brass in Section 4.3). If so, it could be made clearer. If not, this needs to be clearly explained.

While we appreciate that the science in this area is evolving we are concerned about the decision to limit singing in groups or in front of audiences to professionals only. It is difficult to see how the risks involved would be any different in a non-professional context - and we do not believe there is any evidence that amateur singers would be any less diligent in following the detailed guidelines. Indeed, given the typical demographics of amateur choirs which often include older people and some vulnerable people, they are likely to be more cautious and careful in restarting their activities.

If the reason for allowing professional singing only in this initial phase is simply because of need for professional singers to be able to earn a living, we believe there is an equally compelling argument for allowing a return to non-professional group singing because of the proven positive effects on the mental and physical health of participants - many of whom are currently suffering more than ever from loneliness, isolation and other mental health pressures. Resuming group singing is now urgently needed to support the mental wellbeing of the 2.2 million people who sing regularly in choirs. There is also a significant economic impact on the livelihoods of musicians, venues, music publishers and other suppliers, which is currently jeopardised by the lack of non-professional group singing; and on the income of charities, for which choirs usually fundraise millions of pounds a year. The amateur music sector generates substantial income for professional musicians as conductors, accompanists, soloists, composers, and indeed for associated businesses such as music publishers etc. We understand safety must come first, but we also know that the nation's mental health is fragile as a consequence of the pandemic, and that group singing can powerfully mitigate loneliness, anxiety and lack of social connection, for people of all ages.

Section 4.3 on Playing music (excluding singing, wind and brass) says, under steps normally required, "Where playing as a group of non-professionals (i.e. for non-work purposes), following the guidelines on meeting people outside your household." - If social distancing can be maintained we cannot see the need for this distinction between professionals and non-professionals. Again, we do not believe there is any evidence that amateur musicians would be any less diligent in following the detailed guidelines. 

We would also like to emphasise that the main concern for non-professional arts groups right now is rehearsing, ie. meeting – so no public audience is involved, only known participants who can be risk assessed and for whom procedures can be tightly controlled. For non-professional groups the thing they would like now is being able to meet to rehearse - there is much less urgency about performing in front of an audience. Addressing the additional measures required for performances can be done over time while safe rehearsals take place and help to embed best practice among these groups. 

It is wonderful to see the guidelines including reference to non-professional performing arts activity and recognising the importance of this activity. Across England there are approximately 50,000 constituted amateur arts groups, regularly involving more than 9 million people. These groups make a huge contribution to people's wellbeing – and the wellbeing of communities. These groups bring people together, teach them new skills, boost confidence and bring about a sense of achievement, identity and place. We look forward to seeing this recognised in future guidance as soon as possible.