Strong reactions emerged over the weekend to leaked reports that the UK is about to allow orchestras and choirs to return to work, with severe conditions of 3-metre distancing and limits on numbers in the same room (eight instrumentalists, or six singers). It’s struck a nerve coming at the same time as flights are resuming and shops are re-opening. If it’s safe to go to Primark, why can’t we be allowed to make music properly?
I fully understand – and share – musicians’ frustrations, especially when so many of us have been left in the financial lurch by the eccentric gaps in the UK government’s support schemes. We need to get back to work. But we also need to take care. For one thing, sitting in the same room with colleagues for several hours at a time is clearly not an equivalent situation to spending twenty minutes whizzing around a large shop. (Although spare a thought for the shop workers on their long shifts.) The time element of viral load continues to be overlooked in favour of distance, but it’s at least as vital.
Evidence continues to emerge that asymptomatic carriers are major spreaders of the virus, and so relying on self-reporting or temperature checks isn’t enough to ensure safety. This isn’t just a case of trusting your colleagues not to turn up and cough all over you.
Furthermore, as the increasing advice to wear masks should tell us, the sense that the spread of the virus takes place in the air at least as much as it does via surfaces is increasing almost daily – although this might be much clearer if our politicians allowed themselves to admit the possibility that they got it wrong at the start. And other signs show us that this may be, above all, an indoor virus.
Perhaps, despite all that, we’re willing to take the risk. That may well be our impulse now, but professional orchestras do tend to be acutely aware of even relatively minor health and safety risks to their members – and quite rightly so. Would hacking away at the safest scientific advice in the interests of an early return to work really stand up to that level of scrutiny?
As I’ve discussed before, a health risk of, say, 1% might seem negligible to us as individuals. But put 1000 people in an auditorium, and that translates to the near-certainty of an event – not necessarily exactly 10 people each time, but even if we’re lucky and it’s only one, try picking out the unfortunate individual whose health or even life you think is worth sacrificing. The Indigo audience survey showed clearly that our supporters have misgivings about the safety of returning to venues too soon. We need to earn their trust, and sending out the message that our livelihoods take priority over their health is not the way to do that.
It will continue to be increasingly frustrating for us to watch colleagues in other countries return to work earlier than us, reaping the rewards of more competent governments, many of which have also been far swifter and more generous in their financial support of the arts.
But we can’t fight facts, and the worst approach to opening back up would be to lurch through a tentative first step and then swiftly have to take two backwards. To get through this, we need to get the virus under control nationally. We need an effective system of rapid testing, so performers and audiences can sit together knowing that they aren’t infecting each other. And in the meantime we need financial support to ensure we’re all still here ready to go when it’s safe to do so.
The remedies are clear, but they’re not easy nor painless to apply. Frantically searching for less gruelling alternative treatments is, I respectfully suggest, a waste of time and energy. Let’s buckle up and take the medicine.