Museums in England will remain closed until at least July, according to the UK government’s roadmap for easing the coronavirus lockdown published this week.
The government has also extended the employee furlough scheme until October, indicating that some sectors are expected to take considerably longer than this to emerge from the crisis.
Some English leisure venues and public spaces will be able to reopen in step three of the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, on the condition they meet safety guidelines.
Museums Journal understands that the reopening of museums and the wider cultural sector will be part of step three. But there is no guarantee that any museums will be among the first wave of venues to reopen. At the time of publishing, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had not responded to a query from Museums Journal to clarify the position of museums.
The ability to ensure social distancing will be crucial for venues that want to reopen. The plan says “some venues which are, by design, crowded and where it may prove difficult to enact distancing may still not be able to re-open safely at this point, or may be able to open safely only in part”.
The earliest step three can begin is 4 July, but this could be postponed depending on scientific advice and whether the government’s five tests for easing lockdown measures are met. These include ensuring the NHS' ability to cope, a sustained fall in death rates, and a manageable rate of infection.
The Northern Irish government has published a separate five-stage coronavirus recovery plan, but this does not include a firm timetable or any indicative dates. Open air museums will reopen in step two of the plan, before other museums and galleries.
The Welsh and Scottish governments have not yet announced specific policies relating to museums reopening.
The UK government and devolved administrations will work together to ensure a coordinated response. However, restrictions could be lifted at different times across devolved administrations and across English regions, depending on local risk.
The government's strategy says: “In England, the government may adjust restrictions in some regions before others: a greater risk in Cornwall should not lead to disproportionate restrictions in Newcastle if the risk is lower.”
The chancellor Rishi Sunak has also announced that the furlough scheme, which guarantees employees a proportion of their wages if their companies retain them, will continue until October.
The current scheme will run until the end of July, with the government contributing 80% of wages up to a £2,500 limit.
From August to October, employees can still receive this amount, but employers will be asked to start sharing the costs. Furloughed employees will also be able to return to work part time. Further details of the scheme will be announced later this month.
No additional measures have yet announced to support those not covered by the scheme, such as freelancers.
Responding to the announcement, Mike Clancy, general secretary of trade union Prospect, said: “We welcome the chancellor’s announcement today that the Job Retention Scheme will be extended to the end of October with no reduction of support for workers, and that additional flexibility will be introduced to manage the transition back to work.
“However now that the government have conceded that many workers will need to remain furloughed for many more months, it is even more urgent that those who are excluded from government support due to arbitrary cut-offs are now brought into the scheme and do not face the prospect of six months with no income.
“The Treasury must urgently re-engage with Prospect and other organisations to fix the holes in the scheme and ensure all workers get the support they need.”
Alistair Brown, policy officer at the Museums Association (MA), said: “The government’s announcement provides the first, tentative steps towards reopening museums in England. But the 4 July date is not guaranteed and we must wait for further guidance from government on how reopening will happen and what steps we will need to take to ensure staff and public safety.
“Whatever the exact date, we want staff and the public to be confident that they can return to our galleries and spaces safely, and we will be working closely with government to make sure that clear guidelines and support is in place for the sector. Once a date for reopening is more firmly established by government, individual museums will need to make the decision on when to reopen on a case by case basis, dependent on their own appraisal of their public health, financial and operational concerns.
“As we begin to think about reopening, we also need to make sure that there is ongoing financial support for museums when reopening occurs. It is already clear that income from the vital spring and summer season has been wiped out and visitor numbers will be reduced for an extended period in many museums."
He added: “It's good news that the chancellor has extended the furlough scheme until October – the scheme has been instrumental in helping museums and their employees to survive the lockdown so far, and will be even more important in supporting the sector as it reopens to the public. There is still lots to do – but this is good news for museums and their employees across all nations of the UK.”
MA director Sharon Heal said: “Clear guidance and support will be needed in order for museums to reopen to the public and our first priority must be the health and safety of staff, volunteers and the public. Clarity from governments about proposed reopening timescales is useful but each institution will be the best judge of when and if it is feasible to reopen and what support is needed to be able to do so.”
It is expected that even after reopening, museum business models will have to adapt significantly, and that many venues will face ongoing financial challenges.
The MA’s recent statement on reopening museums says the process will be “risky and difficult” for many institutions. It argues that museums should be eligible for emergency public support “during an extended period following the end of the lockdown”.