The MU General Secretary believes 2m social distancing is “overkill” for some musicians. Are anyone else’s alarm bells ringing?!

There was an interesting shift in the MU’s public comments about the pandemic earlier today. The shift came in the form of comments made by MU General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, in an article published on BBC News. It’s worth reading that before reading on here. I felt a bit confused on first reading and am trying not to jump to conclusions, but it seems to have provoked a fair amount of discussion on social media, so now that it’s sunk in a bit, I wanted to put a few thoughts down about my own reaction.

In my opinion, there are two aspects to this that are worth members’ consideration. The first is to simply look at the surface level of Horace’s comments, and the second is to take a deeper look below the surface at what those comments tell us about his attitude towards the role of the MU.

At surface level, it appears that the MU is now lobbying for a reduction in the social distancing measures for performers, with Horace suggesting that “If you’re in a line rather than looking at each other, then it [2m] seems to be overkill.” The article goes on to report him as saying that “this distance was particularly unnecessary for string and percussion instrumentalists, as opposed to singers, as they could wear masks.” Horace doesn’t put a precise figure on what distance would be more appropriate than the “overkill” of 2m.

As a starting point, Members should be asking whether Horace was off-script or misquoted. Is this an official union position? Was it endorsed by the EC? Is this shift based on any advice from qualified Health and Safety professionals? Whether <2m social distancing can be considered reasonable or not, it seems self-evident that an increased risk of transmission must occur in tandem with a decrease in social distancing so how has Horace measured the unavoidable increased risks against the advantages of getting musicians back into work? Will we be able to see the Risk Assessment?

Parking those questions, Horace’s statements directly contradict the advice issued to members working as teachers, and the advice issued to members working in studios. The MU has also publicly announced that it supports the NEU’s five tests for a wider reopening of schools. The second NEU test is “A National Plan for Social Distancing”. This all adds up to a pretty confusing picture. There has been an attempt to clarify any confusion with a discreet statement added to the MU website. The statement doesn’t really clear up my confusion but it does tell us that on June 9, Horace will be giving evidence to the DCMS Select Committee. Will his evidence include urging the government to reduce the social distancing obligations for working musicians? If so, will he back it up with scientific data? It’s also worth being clear that this follow up statement doesn’t suggest that Horace was misquoted. I’m feeling increasingly worried.

The same article quotes Horace Trubridge as saying “I can’t see anything really significant happening this year to help them [musicians] out of this hole.” Simply put, this is a public prediction of the failure of all of the union’s pandemic-related campaigning which just seems utterly depressing and defeatist.

I started off this piece by saying that I also wanted to talk about what this announcement seems to say about the MU’s current role within the music industry – or perhaps what the announcement seems to say about our General Secretary’s view of the MU’s role within the music industry. It’s worth acknowledging that there will be many members and musicians generally who might react positively to anything that would make it seem possible to get back to work more quickly and it’s something a lot of unions are having to grapple with at the moment. One example can be seen in the mixed reactions from members of education unions towards the way some unions have handled the wider opening of schools. Most teaching and support staff unions have argued that it is simply too soon to take steps towards wider reopening in a way that is safe for pupils and staff. This position has been met with opposition across much of the mainstream media; one Daily Mail headline stated “Magnificent staff across the nation are desperate to help millions of children get back to the classroom – but militant unions are standing in their way”. It must take a great deal of courage to maintain a position which you know could prove unpopular with members, despite being held in only the best interests of those members, so it speaks volumes about the integrity of those unions that are standing by their members and bringing them along through education and leadership.

I can’t help but also draw attention to the manner in which comments atrributed to the founder of the MU, Joseph Williams, have been used against members attempting to apply scrutiny to the decisions made by the MU leadership in the past. Williams described the union as “a protection Union. One that will protect us from unscrupulous employers and protect us from ourselves“. I struggle to think of a time when that quote might feel more appropriate than the time we find ourselves in now. A time when musicians are collectively more desperate to get back to work than probably any other time in the union’s history – yet also a time when it simply does not yet appear to be safe.

I’ve written elsewhere explaining my view that there has been a degree of something akin to mission creep within the MU and I think it’s something that’s also relevant here. What I mean by that is that it isn’t the article itself that offends me, or the suggestion that a reduction in the 2m social distancing requirement for musicians could be beneficial, what offends me is reading that the suggestion is coming from the leadership of the MU.

There are plenty of industry bodies who have an interest in getting musicians back into work as soon as possible, but there is only one organisation which has the health and safety of musicians at it’s very core. Of course we want to get back to work, but only when it is safe to do so. The MU should leave the rhetoric about reducing health and safety requirements to others and focus on protecting us.

It’s easy for me to say what the MU shouldn’t be doing, but what should it be doing? Lots of British trade unions are putting in place a series of tests for safe returns to work but given the fragmented nature of the MU membership, my suggestion for the MU is not “tests” but “actions”:

  1. Continue campaigning for a continuation of support for individual members. Both those members currently receiving support and those who have fallen through the cracks.
  2. Campaign for a large-scale bailout for the whole Arts sector.
  3. Engage in consultations on risk assessments for returning to work.
  4. Open a campaign for encouraging members to undertake necessary accreditation for becoming an H&S workplace representative.
  5. Commit to ensuring that all published guidance is clear and consistent.
  6. Commit to supporting members who challenge employers around H&S concerns around returning to work.

The BBC article covering Horace’s comments closed with a quote from a Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson: “These are challenging times for the UK’s world-class music industry, and we are providing unprecedented support through substantial financial measures such as the Self-Employed Income Support and Bounce Back loan schemes. We welcome creative and innovative ideas on how we can support our talented musicians.” If the most creative and innovative idea the General Secretary of the MU can come up with is a reduction in social distancing measures then the union really is in trouble.

Published by MU Members for Change

MU Members For Change is a broad and diverse coalition of members within the Musicians’ Union. It exists to facilitate communication between members; to aid the delivery of member voice to the Executive Committee; and to promote democracy within the Musicians’ Union. Enquiries should be sent to:

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