England Step 3 guidance for choirs Jump to main content

England Step 3 guidance for choirs

Our joint campaign to amend government guidance on amateur singing limits

Many members have been in touch with us to express concern at the government guidance issued on 18 May, which restricts the permitted number of those singing indoors together in England to a maximum of six people.

This guidance, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), came without warning, and was contrary to expectations that non-professional music activity would return, outdoors and indoors in England from 17 May (the starting date for Step 3 of the government’s roadmap), without limits on numbers other than those dictated by the size of a venue (to allow for social distancing).

The new guidance makes it impossible for choirs to rehearse indoors at this step. This is a source of huge frustration given that the guidance was issued after the start of step 3. Members have told us that in some instances rehearsals had started, and choirs had spent time and resources preparing risk assessments and safe rehearsals.

We sympathise with the frustrations felt by everyone who had planned their return to singing. We are extremely concerned that amateur singing has been singled out by DCMS for such unreasonable and unworkable restrictions.

What are we doing about this?

The ISM, Making Music, abcd (the Association of British Choral Directors), other organisations in Singing Network UK (SNUK) and the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), have been working together to lobby government and to help everyone involved in singing play their part in this campaign.

We are asking that indoor singing activity be brought in line with the guidance for other non-professional music activity and indoor organised sports activity, as was the case between August and December 2020.

Our joint response with partners in the sector

  • A letter was sent to Caroline Dinenage MP, the Minister of State for Digital and Culture, on 20 May, on behalf of the ISM, which represents almost 11,000 music professionals, Singing Network UK (SNUK) which represents the 2.2 million singers and 40,000 choirs in the UK, and the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), which represents the collective interests of professional orchestras and youth ensembles. Our letter has had a response (see more below).
  • A press release was distributed on 21 May, and we are working with our partners to raise awareness of this issue to the press.
  • A letter has been sent to Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, England, and Dr Jenny Harries OBE at Public Health England, on behalf of the ISM, SNUK, the ABO and other organisations. We outline that we are not aware of new evidence; and how choirs were operating safely between August and December 2020, with a range of risk mitigations in place, including:
    • well-ventilated buildings
    • strict social distancing during activity from arrival to leaving
    • smaller group rehearsals to allow 4m2 per singer
    • singers’ facemasks
    • shorter rehearsals
    • hand sanitising
    • one way systems in venues
    • no sharing of equipment
    • strict exclusion of anyone with symptoms via pre-attendance questionnaires
    • allocated seating and thorough cleaning.

The letter asks that the evidence be published which has prompted the decision to single out choirs, out of all organised amateur activity (music, theatre, dance, sport) as the one not safe enough to re-start, and that the conditions be made explicit under which choirs may re-start meeting indoors in numbers greater than 6, to allow forward planning.

  • The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Classical Music has written to Oliver Dowden MP on this issue. Read the letter.
  • We are developing parliamentary questions to be asked by any MP or peer selected to ask such a question, with accompanying briefing. Currently 20 parliamentary questions have been tabled in the House of Commons and four in the House of Lords.
  • We are working with DCMS on creating the confidence in their team that the ISM, Making Music, abcd and other SNUK member organisations are supporting choirs with the right protocols to operate safely.

How has the government responded?

We understand that there will not be a change to the official DCMS performing arts guidance until Step 4, which is intended to start on 21 June (subject to any UK government decisions in the light of rates of COVID infections). We will continue to talk to DCMS about how and when choirs can return to rehearsing in person indoors in greater numbers at step 4.

Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture at DCMS, has written a letter responding to us and the other signatories of our letter of 20 May, which includes this statement: ‘Whilst it is for organisers and venues to determine how to operate in accordance with the relevant guidance and regulations, we would remind you that the limits do not apply to activity taking place for work or commercial activity.’

The meaning of ‘work’ and ‘commercial’ are not defined in this letter and leave some scope for interpretation. A 'work' context could reasonably include a situation where one professional is leading or directing non-professionals. 'Commercial' could include the commercial sale of products and services such as tickets for concerts. So a rehearsal working towards a performance could, in theory, be considered in this context to be a commercial activity.

We are seeking advice from our public liability insurance (PLI) brokers about the insurance position of ISM members if a group were to rehearse indoors in numbers greater than six on the grounds that it is work/commercial activity. We will update this page once we know more.

What can everyone do?

  • Write to your MP: they represent you and should respond to your concerns. Find out how to contact your MP. Make it personal: tell your MP what being in a choir means to your, to your community, for the constituency. Personal stories can have great impact. If you wish, you can use our template letter.
  • Encourage all your choir colleagues to write to their MP: every single person in the choir should write, and again, they should make it personal.
  • Write to members of the House of Lords - any and all of them. They do not represent a geographical area but you might have a special connection to some of them, perhaps because they come from your region or sing in a choir.
  • Sign and share the official government petition. The government has now responded, however, their explanation for the restrictions still refers to studies from July/August 2020 which were used to allow amateur choirs to sing indoors last summer, and overlooks later research. We encourage everyone involved in amateur singing to sign and share the petition, as when it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Points to consider including in your letter

The more personal your letter, the better, but the following may help you get started.

  • The new guidance was issued more than a week after Step 3 was confirmed. If your choir spent hours finding a suitable COVID-secure venue, liaising with them, setting up risk assessments and protocols, put this in your letter.
  • The current guidelines for singing do not allow choirs to rehearse indoors in any meaningful way.
  • Government funded research into singing was undertaken last summer, resulting in singing being allowed again in August. Many choirs rehearsed safely in the autumn under strict guidelines. No infections were reported.
  • Any financial consequences of continuing inactivity for your choir.
  • Any financial consequences for you as a professional musician, particularly if this is the way you earn your living.
  • If you are a church choir leader, tell your MP that the new guidance is a step back from earlier guidance issued on 29 March
  • Tell your MP about the continuing emotional impact on choirs who have not rehearsed for many months. There is an extensive body of research proving the benefits for singers' mental and physical wellbeing.

What to ask your MP

  • Tell them that you would like them to ask a parliamentary question. MPs and Peers in the House of Lords can do this. You can send them the parliamentary question and associated briefing prepared by SNUK.
  • If your MP is a Conservative, ask if they can take your concerns directly to the relevant minister (Caroline Dinenage, Minister of State for Digital and Culture).

Please share this information with your singing contacts. We will be updating this page as developments occur.