Museums across the UK are revisiting their Covid policies in response to new measures introduced by the UK Government to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.
The government has announced a requirement for all people to self-isolate for 10 days after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for the Omicron variant, regardless of vaccine status. Some museums are making contingency plans for their Christmas rotas, fearing a return to the staff shortages caused by self-isolation rules earlier this year.
Museums and galleries in England are also taking a tougher stance on Covid safety measures in light of the new restrictions.
Face coverings have not been legally required in most public spaces in England since July, but some museums are making changes in response to the reintroduction of mandatory masks in retail and public transport settings, which came into force today.
The requirement covers museum shops, but not other museum spaces or hospitality settings such as sit-down cafes.
Fines of £200 could be handed out to those who fail to wear face coverings in the appropriate settings. Retailers have urged the government to make clear that shopworkers are not expected to enforce the rules.
Public and staff settings included under the new restrictions
- shops and supermarkets (places that offer goods or services for retail sale or hire)
- shopping centres (malls and indoor markets)
- auction houses
- post offices, banks, building societies, credit unions, short-term loan providers, savings clubs and money service businesses
- estate and letting agents
- premises providing personal care and beauty treatments (barbers, hair salons, tattoo and piercing studios, nail salons and massage centres)
- premises providing veterinary services
- retail galleries
- retail travel agents
- takeaways without space for consumption of food or drink on premises
- public transport (aeroplanes, trains, trams, buses, coaches and ferries), taxis and private hire vehicles
- transport hubs (airports, rail and tram stations and terminals, maritime ports and terminals, bus and coach stations and terminals)
- any car or small van during a professionally delivered driving lesson and practical driving test
- during all HGV lessons and tests, during all professional driving lessons and formal driving tests, and during any practical test for giving driving instruction
Although most museums have continued to maintain Covid safety measures since legal restrictions were dropped, many are starting to firm up their requirements and messaging.
Museums are able to set their own discretionary rules on face coverings as a prerequisite to entry, though these are not enforceable by law.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is among the institutions to make masks and social distancing mandatory in light of the Omicron variant.
The Fashion and Textile Museum said: “In light of recent changes in regulations, face coverings are required in all public areas of the museum.”
Yorkshire Air Museum wrote: “With mask wearing becoming a mandatory requirement again in both shops and public transport as of today (30th November), we ask that visitors to the museum wear a suitable mask in all indoors areas.”
Liz Power, director of London Museum of Water & Steam, tweeted that the museum may also reintroduce social distancing requirements: “We have a three step plan, bringing in step one, being firmer on masks, signs back out, testing for staff/volunteers and our own rule that any staff with Covid in their house stays home. Step two is about social distancing if we need it.”
The V&A asks visitors to wear face coverings inside the building at all times, unless exempt.
Other institutions are continuing to encourage visitors to wear face coverings rather than making them mandatory. The National Gallery has updated its website to say: “A face covering must be worn in our shops and we encourage you to wear one throughout your visit.”
The British Museum says: “Unless you’re exempt, face coverings are mandatory in museum shops and recommended elsewhere in the museum.”
Face coverings remain mandatory in museums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The new measures are expected to be in place for at least three weeks.