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Where does the new lockdown in England leave musicians and teachers?

Boris Johnson’s leaked and then twice-delayed announcement about a new lockdown for England has left more questions than it has answered

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leaked and then twice-delayed announcement about a new lockdown for England has left more questions than it has answered.

The hard-hitting presentation of the rapid increase in Covid-19 infections might have come late, but it was meant to make clear the seriousness of the situation. Regional shutdowns had not worked so, England will join Northern Ireland and Wales in taking a national approach. In England’s case it will mean a one month ‘circuit-breaker’, though the Prime Minister wisely avoided using Keir Starmer’s turn of phrase. Scotland, meanwhile, will bring in a multi-tiered localised approach and advises Scottish residents to avoid visiting England altogether.

The new English restrictions will, yet again, close all entertainment venues, pubs, restaurants and any ‘non-essential’ shops. Once again, town centres will be emptied. However, there will be exceptions that differ from those in March.

People will allowed to leave home from 5 November until 1 December only for:

  • education
  • travel to work except for those who can work at home
  • outdoor exercise within the household or with one member of another household
  • medical appointments
  • escaping injury or harm
  • caring for the vulnerable or as a volunteer
  • shopping for food and essentials
  • seeing people in your support bubble if you live alone

Children will still be able to move between homes if their parents are separated.

Anyone caught breaking these rules could face a fixed penalty from the police.

What does this mean for people facing loss of income?

For those fortunate enough to be on the Job Retention Scheme known as furlough, the announcement that it will be extended by another month may come as a relief. But companies have been planning for months for its termination, the same night as the announcement of its extension.

Many had already started laying off staff because they could not employ people for sufficient hours to stay on the scheme or because they couldn’t afford to pay part of the furlough, National Insurance and pension contributions while having no turnover.

Extending the furlough scheme within hours of its conclusion must have come as a total shock. Apparently, it did for Conservative MPs who only found out watching television.

How many employers had already laid off staff?

The new announcement begs many questions.

For example, how many employers, faced with Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s greatly diminished Job Support Scheme beginning on 1 November, had already laid off staff and adjusted their business models to suit? How many of those, for the sake of one month’s grace, would reverse those adjustments and invite employees back?

From 2 December, the government says it will do what it said it would do on 31 October: instigate the Job Support Scheme, but with better terms than Sunak had originally offered. Yet, that may still be insufficient for many employers, especially in the performing arts and leisure industries, which have been ordered to shut down yet again.

This poses further questions. The Culture Recovery Fund grants, which have been handed out in hundreds of millions of pounds through October, have already been helping performance spaces to open up again. Pantomimes and concert seasons have been promoted through the next month. Tickets have been sold. What happens now?

Travelling to play a concert in another country runs the risk of finding the rules have changed while you’re away

What about performers’ ability to travel to and stay near venues?

Travel for work is permitted, but the police can impose fines on anyone without proof that this is their purpose. Overnight stays can be made for work, too. But where? Hotels will close again. Travel outside the UK will be heavily restricted, though it is not yet certain whether this will be a legal requirement. Travel abroad for work is permitted but, as many musicians have discovered, travelling to play a concert in another country runs the risk of finding the rules have changed while you’re away and you have to quarantine for two weeks upon your return.

With all non-essential shops closing, all pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues, the opportunities for musicians to earn a living are severely curtailed yet again.

Serious concerns about face-to-face lessons

Education is supposed to be exempt. Schools, colleges and universities are expected to remain open, unlike the first lockdown, and the government cited evidence that schools are the best place for children to be. This may not turn out the way the government wishes. The National Education Union has already stated that putting its members in harm’s way is a mistake and that school rotas should be introduced after this lockdown ends. The position is similar for the University and College Union, which has expressed serious concerns about face-to-face lessons during a wave of infections that the Prime Minister had said threatened, ‘a medical and moral disaster.’

Where this leaves the thousands of self-employed music educators remains to be seen. There has been no indication that the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme will be extended to include the estimated 38 percent (Musicians’ Union Research) of musicians excluded from help for the last seven months. It remains to be seen if the same extension offered to PAYE employees will apply to freelancers.

With Boris Johnson admitting that this belated attempt to curtail the rapid spread of Covid-19 may yet not work, and saying that it will be at least spring before things improve, it leaves hundreds of thousands of musicians and their families unable to make a living for a whole year.

This is an evolving story and MUSIC:ED will update it as more is learned.