Museums across the UK are bracing themselves for further uncertainty as new restrictions are brought in to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The Northern Ireland Executive has told all museums and galleries in the six counties to close from 6pm tonight as more stringent lockdown rules come into force, prohibiting people from making unnecessary trips outside their homes. The restrictions are expected to remain in place for a four-week period. All cultural institutions across the border in the Republic of Ireland have already been shut.
A spokeswoman for National Museums Northern Ireland said no further details were available at this time. A statement on the institution's website said: "The safety of our visitors and staff, and the health and wellbeing of our community is our priority. Whilst the museums are temporarily closed, we will continue to conduct as much as possible of our work remotely and will seek alternative ways to provide access to the collections that we hold."
The Museums Association's policy manager, Alistair Brown, said: “This will be a real blow to museums in Northern Ireland where staff have worked so hard to get their organisations up and running again. We hope that these closures are genuinely effective in helping to combat the coronavirus and that museums are able to reopen as soon as reasonably possible.”
Many museums and galleries in areas affected by England's new Covid restrictions have vowed to remain open for the time being in order to provide an outlet for local people.
Liverpool became the first city to enter a Tier 3 lockdown this week, with pubs, gyms and close contact services forced to close. But a spokeswoman for National Museums Liverpool said the institution is not currently planning to shut its sites – although she said the situation could change quickly depending on government advice.
A number of temporary exhibitions are running across the city, including a Linda MacCartney retrospective at the Walker Art Gallery. “We’re still currently open and there’s lots of stuff going on,” said the spokeswoman. “We want to provide a bit of respite to people.”
However visitor numbers have been down at the institution's venues in recent days, she said. The new rules mean visitors are only allowed to go to museums and galleries with members of their household or support bubble in Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas.
With a number of other cities due to enter a Tier 2 lockdown at midnight tonight, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has confirmed that people from those areas must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting, including public places such as museums.
A DCMS spokesman said: “Venues, including museums, galleries and libraries, following Covid-secure guidance can host more people in total, but no one must mix indoors with anyone who they do not live with (or have formed a support bubble with) unless exemptions apply. Outdoors, they can meet in groups of up to six people.”
The areas being placed in Tier 2 lockdown are: London; Essex; Elmbridge; Barrow-in-Furness; York; North East Derbyshire; Erewash and Chesterfield.
The guidance states that businesses and venues must ensure people do not meet in their premises with people from outside of their household or support bubble, and could face fines, prosecution or closure for failing to comply.
Brown said: “The new restrictions in England don’t force museums to close – but they will still be a source of huge concern for the sector. The worry is that visitors will stay away just as our sector was beginning to get back on its feet. What we need to know from the government is whether there will be further support for museums – as there will be for other sectors – if staying open becomes impossible under the new restrictions.”
New travel restrictions have been introduced in Wales, where museums in some counties have already been closed for several weeks. The restrictions prevent people from travelling to the nation from other Covid hotspots in the UK.
In Scotland, hospitality businesses are currently closed as part of a “circuit-breaker” lockdown due to end on 26 October. However, museums and galleries have not been asked to shut during that time. First minister Nicola Sturgeon warned this week that the government would consider further measures if necessary.