An Andover choir has called on the government to let them sing after it banned them from singing together indoors a day after restrictions changed.

Andover Ladies Choir was looking forward to returning to singing together in Thruxton Memorial Hall, with its membership having sung on Zoom throughout lockdown. However, on May 18, a day after lockdown rules changed in England, amateur singers were told they could only be in groups of six.

“We feel like we’re being discriminated against for no reason,” said Clare Oliver, the choir’s musical director. “Football crowds can sing a chant in their thousands, but we can’t with sanitisation and temperature checks with more than six.”

Formed in 2017, Andover Ladies Choir has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, winning a variety of awards. In March 2020, it had just won two categories at the Mid-Somerset Festival when lockdown was imposed, and the choir began singing over Zoom.

In August, the choir pioneered a new way of singing safely when they purchased special singing masks from Broadway to use to get back to singing in person. After being featured in the Advertiser, they received national coverage for their new initiative.

“In September, when ITV wanted to film us, we were initially told it was a social thing and it couldn’t be more than six,” said Clare. “We said it wasn’t, as there was no mingling, and on the morning we were meant to film it was changed to say with full mitigation we could have more singers as we were effectively in bubbles of one.”

Since then, the choir has been in and out of lockdown, learning its repetoire over Zoom and in person when the rules allowed. They have also filmed performances for organisations such as the Countess of Brecknock Hospice and Andover Mind.

As the third national lockdown began to come to an end, industry bodies the Association of British Choral Directors and Making Music approached the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and were assured that choral singing would return in person from Step Three of the lockdown relaxation, which came into force on Monday, May 17.

However, 36 hours afterwards, updated guidance was released, saying that amateurs can only sing in groups of six indoors.

“The choral world has gone bananas,” said Clare. “There are 42,000 choral groups, around 2.1 million singers, who have been affected by thinking they were able to do something they’re not able to do.”

Clare said that she knows choirs who sung on May 17, only to find their actions were illegal 24 hours later. She described the situation as Kafkaesque.

“Professional performers can sing, and two weeks ago I went to the Tower of London with 29 other professional choral directors and we rehearsed and sang there. We were allowed to do that then, even though it was lockdown, but what I want to know is if the coronavirus can discern between a professional singer and an amateur? Of course not.

“Therefore, why is it ok for professionals to get together but not amateurs if they have full mitigation and vaccination? I just don’t understand.”

As a singing teacher at Farleigh School, Clare says that she is able to teach pupils to sing in larger groups with no masks, but that her group of ladies are unable, despite having masks and flow tests in place.

“So much has gone into bringing people back safely and then to not even be considered or warned is ridiculous,” she said. “If they’d told us weeks ago it would have been ok, but to be told it’s fine constantly and then when it should have started it got cancelled is just stupid.

“I’ve had people’s mental health in my hands, and people have told me I’ve kept them going, especially in lockdown one. This is the highlight of their week, and getting back together was so important for them.”

As a result, Clare decided to organise the choir’s first in-person meeting of the year in the car park of the Thruxton Memorial Hall instead, after clearing it with the hall’s committee. The choir got together on May 19 for their first session, where they sang songs including ‘Why We Sing’ to protest the treatment they perceive as unfair.

Clare hopes that pressure from choirs across the country will force the DCMS to change their mind and announce an earlier return than June, saying: “We hope they will realise their error and do something before then, hopefully in the next week.”

The DCMS would not be drawn on whether they would change the rules in the near future. A government spokesperson told the Advertiser: "We must take a cautious and phased approach in easing restrictions.

"Changes in step three in line with wider social contact rules mean an amateur choir or performance group of up to six people or two households can now sing indoors, and outdoors in groups of up to 30.

"We understand this is disappointing but are taking decisions based on the advice of our public health experts."