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Choirs: Restrictions

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the guidance restricting the performance of indoor amateur choirs to no more than six people.

My Lords, I know that the restrictions on singing are frustrating to large numbers of amateur choirs and performance groups across the country. Following the move to step 3 of the road map on 17 May, non-professional groups of up to six people can now sing indoors, while multiple groups of 30 can sing outdoors. We will continue to keep guidance and restrictions under review. Further details of step 4 will be set out as soon as possible.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a supporter patron of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which has more than 400 adults in its various amateur choirs. I can see no specific evidence to support the restriction on choirs. Indoor choirs are limited to six people, whereas last night at Wembley 40,000 people were singing, and the night before at Wimbledon the court was covered and people were cheering to the rafters. That apparently is allowed but indoor choirs, which can exercise proper social distancing, are not allowed. This is nonsense. The Government should reverse it immediately.

I am sure the noble Lord is aware that the events to which he refers are part of the events research programme, and particular public health measures are taken for all those attending. The evidence is clear that, sadly, singing increases the risks of transmission. Hence, we have the guidance we have been given.

My Lords, bearing in mind that on Monday in the other place the new Health Secretary said he hoped that church congregations would soon be able to sing together, could the Minister please give us some clarity on this and say what plans the Government have now to review the research on congregational singing with the use of face coverings, given that singing is not an add-on to worship but integral to it?

I absolutely recognise the right reverend Prelate’s final remarks about singing being integral to worship. We continue to be led by the science and the experts, and to follow the public health advice. As soon as that changes, we will of course update the guidance.

My Lords, the Chelmsford Singers, a flourishing group not far from Lexden in Essex, would like to know why the current guidance with its totally unexpected restrictions, promised by the Government on 27 April

“in advance of step 3”,

was in fact published after step 3, causing them and so many choirs throughout the country to cancel their first rehearsals for over a year at short notice and, in some cases, with severe financial penalties.

I can only apologise to my noble friend and the choir in Chelmsford for the disruption to their plans. As my noble friend is aware, guidance is now available on the GOV.UK website. It will be updated in time for step 4. When it is updated, it will be clear, practical and simply set out.

My Lords, it is completely illogical to say that a group of more than six professional singers can meet and sing but a group of amateurs cannot. It makes no sense at all. What does the Minister think people feel when they sit at home, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, and watch all these people getting together, singing, kissing, hugging and chanting?

The noble Lord’s tone expressed very well what many people feel. We absolutely hear that frustration. He will be aware that all ministerial and MPs’ inboxes are full of correspondence on this issue, so we are aware. We are also aware that some amateur groups perform in a professional context, as the noble Lord set out. As a department we cannot advise on individual events or activities. It is up to the organisers to operate in accordance with the published guidance.

I think all of us share considerable dismay about the answers we have just heard. Although we feel sorry for the Minister for her attempts to try to add a veneer of respectability to her responses, neither the science nor the reality of common sense back her up. As a member of the Parliament Choir, I want to meet with other members in a socially respectable way to sing the music that inspires us and to lead our lives as close to normality as we can. What we want is a road map and a timescale.

I can only repeat what I said in response to an earlier question: we will provide that road map as soon as possible and in time for step 4.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the board of governors and trustees of the Parliament Choir. Last year, the evidence that came to the Government said that singing was no different from speaking loudly or taking physical exercise indoors. With both of those now permitted—your Lordships will know that I can speak loudly, as can many other noble Lords—what is the evidence that says that speaking loudly in this Chamber is permitted but singing together in a Covid-compliant way is not permitted? Where is the evidence for that and will the Minister publish it?

There are references in recent research done, for the events research pilots in particular, that links to the evidence, but the decision has been based on three scientific studies: the NERVTAG Assessment of Transmission of Covid-19 through Musical Events study, the Public Health England paper Aerosol and Droplet Generation from Singing, Wind Instruments and Performance Activities, and the PERFORM study.

In both the county of my birth, Yorkshire, and the county of my home, Essex, there are great choral traditions. My noble friend will realise that these amateur choirs go beyond just singing; they are an important part of what makes the community tick. Given that she said that amateur choirs can rehearse indoors in a professional capacity, why not follow the science? If members of the choir have been double-jabbed and it is in a well-ventilated room, why should that not be permissible?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend that amateur choirs are an important part of communities. Indeed, I do not want to diminish in any way the frustration expressed by your Lordships, but we have seen remarkable performances by Zoom choirs and others. I can only repeat that we are following the Public Health England guidance.

My Lords, as we have heard today and on many other occasions, members of choirs and communities across the country are feeling both fed up and overlooked. Does the Minister personally feel comfortable with the fact—and can she offer an explanation for it—that so-called business VIPs are exempted from the range of Covid-19 restrictions while choirs, singers, actors and other artists who have endured over a year of hardship remain subject to a set of rules that, unlike in other areas of life, have remained absolutely static?

I know that the noble Baroness recognises the difference in the public health risks between the two activities to which she refers. I also acknowledge that she might be expressing broader sentiments in relation to this.

My Lords, the Royal Choral Society is a brilliant choir, but it is an amateur one. On 30 May it performed Handel’s “Messiah” at the Royal Albert Hall, with 117 singers producing a brilliant performance. I applaud its decision to go ahead, but could the Minister tell us what sanctions there are for those who break the regulations? I am sure the House and the country would like to know what sanctions there are.

I will need to write to the noble Baroness with details on sanctions, but I assume that they are available on GOV.UK.

My Lords, does not my noble friend understand that she has been trying valiantly to defend the totally indefensible? Does she not accept that the cultural life of this country rests to some degree on the continuance of amateur choirs? If she goes on repeating these answers and the Government do not show a proper degree of flexibility, many of these choirs will cease to exist.

The Government have acted incredibly powerfully to support the cultural life of this country. We absolutely recognise its importance in relation to amateur choirs and the whole spectrum of performing arts, which is why we are progressing with phase 3 of the more than £2 billion Culture Recovery Fund.