BERLIN BOUND - Isobel Daws secures place at Karajan Academy

Issue 6125

SCOTTISH FUNDING - SBBA receives Creative Scotland award

CONTEST CANCELLED - West of England Regionals off

CURTAIN RISING - RNCM Festival set for take-off

PUSHED BACK - Australian Nationals postponed

Opinion: Will Omicron be a hammer blow for banding?

Monday 13 December, 2021

Over the past few months, brass bands far and wide have tentatively but enthusiastically returned to live music making, with the sound of brass ringing out loud and clear following a COVID-enforced absence.
 
However, the recent discovery of the new Omicron variant is causing major concern. Martin Gernon ponders what might be in store for banding over the coming months.

 

The fastest rate of transmission of any COVID variant; a doubling in cases worldwide every two and a half days; more than 75 countries now with the variant, and on December 13 in the UK, the confirmation of the first deaths with Omicron. The Secretary of State for Health, Sajid Javid, recently estimated one million cases in the UK alone by the end of the year. A forlorn message from the prime minister, Boris Johnson, came on December 12 to ramp up the booster campaign to more than one million jabs a day, a task already viewed as nigh impossible by some NHS chiefs.

The prime minister is not ruling out further measures to be introduced, pre-Christmas. Germany, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway already have tougher restrictions in place. Travel restrictions now form part of the daily news briefing. The world is on a heightened state of alert and worry. World Health Organisation predictions are that the Omicron variant will become the dominant variant across the world before we welcome the New Year.

Universities in the UK are being urged to conduct the remainder of this semester digitally; some, such as Imperial College London, have already taken this step. Work-from-home practices have been re-introduced in the UK. The Netherlands is on a 5pm curfew for social gatherings, Denmark is effectively doing the same, with bands now unable to rehearse until the end of January, and there’s a similar situation in Germany, with all Christmas markets cancelled.

On December 12, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine issued a report based on its findings of the Omicron variant, with four scenarios, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic. The optimistic version had an additional 25,000 deaths in the UK alone, with its sombre, pessimistic version calling for 75,000 additional deaths by the end of April.

This is grim reading and leaves me in no doubt that we are facing the next crisis in this awful pandemic. With a doubling of cases every 2.5 days, the end of December could see 800,000 – 1,000,000 cases.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, brass band activity is trivial when people are losing their livelihoods, lives and those of their loved ones. However, it is a passion that everyone reading this article will be involved in, one way or other.

Taking the UK first, my heart goes out to organisers of January events, who must now be considering cancellation and postponement. It’s difficult to see a scenario where any of these events can happen without the risk of spreading this variant further. First up in 2022 is Butlin’s. Anyone who has been to this fabulous weekend will look and shudder. Ten deep at the bar all night long, crowded venues, the inability to socially distance, ventilation challenges and the sheer social nature of 4,000 happy bandspeople and supporters gathering for the first time in almost two years. The discipline required to stay safe will be soon forgotten after the first couple of beers, not through the fault of anyone, but because of human nature.

The British Open follows. No-one knows whether social distancing at theatres and performance venues will be re-introduced for January. Should the case numbers keep rising the way they are, it is a good bet. January is the quietest month of the year for hospitality, show bookings etc, following the Christmas rush and would therefore cause the least impact (in context) to this already beleaguered sector. A huge factor in the Open being postponed from September, was the restrictions in place backstage from the Symphony Hall. It is entirely possible that these will be re-introduced in January. We are now hearing that some professional orchestras and ensembles are re-introducing socially distanced rehearsals and stage performances from January. What also of the audience, being in the same space, shoulder to shoulder, for eight to nine hours? There will be apprehension, particularly with the elderly and more vulnerable sector. And let us not forget the bands. Cory has already confirmed cancellation of its remaining concerts in December due to COVID outbreaks in the ranks. With the infection rate nearing 1 in 50 of the UK population, the statistics are that at least one person in every two bands will come down with COVID the week of the contest. With new self-isolation restrictions in place in Scotland that require 10-day isolation for anyone in contact with a newly confirmed case, one can only expect disruption.

Also due to take place in the UK in January is the fabulous RNCM Festival of Brass. Should universities and colleges extend their digital learning programmes and exclude external events, as the RNCM was very quick to do during the course of the pandemic, then the festival is shut down by proxy.

Around Europe, bands are effectively closed down until the end of January, with most governments due to announce further restrictions to come into force. The Norwegian National at the start of February is likely to be affected. Also, cast your eyes forward to the European Championships due to be held in Birmingham at the end of April. Is this too far out to be hit? A lot will depend on the vaccination rate of other countries, which sadly appear to be lacking behind the UK in terms of administering the first two jabs, not to mention any boosters. What travel restrictions will be in place, not only for entry into the UK, which is currently a four-day isolation period, but also for travel across Europe (not all countries are part of the EU) and return journeys? Lots of questions to ponder. Lots of unknowns. Lots of concerns about the unknowns.

How long will any booster jab be effective against this Omicron variant? Reports on the initial efficacy of being double jabbed, suggest a waning effect of up to 50 per cent over the first six months. Is this also to be the case for the current range of booster jabs, with us all needing a further boost within six months? So much to consider.

For English bands, BBE has issued guidance which, in the absence of direct instruction from the DCMS, encourages bands to continue to adopt safe rehearsal and performance practices. It’s available at: www.bbe.org.uk.

February, of course, gets the Regionals season underway in the UK, with every contesting band in the land requiring rehearsal time. Will this, too, be affected? Goings-on in January – political, case numbers, hospitalisations, and deaths – will largely dictate if these can go ahead or not.

I make no apologies for writing such a bleak article just before Christmas. This Omicron variant could have huge ramifications for banding across the globe. Like everyone else in our movement I sincerely hope it doesn’t, but it does emphasise the need for everyone to stay safe, get vaccinated and be prepared for whatever this thing throws at us.

Martin Gernon