United Kingdom

Royals can't sing national anthem at Westminster Abbey Armistice Day service due to Covid-19 rules 

Members of the Royal Family, the Government and the Armed Forces will not be allowed to sing hymns or even the national anthem when they gather at Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day.

This year, November 11 marks 100 years since London came to a halt for the two events which have defined the way Britain honours its war dead – the unveiling of the Cenotaph on Whitehall and the Funeral of the Unknown Warrior at the Abbey.

A special Abbey service to mark that day in 1920 will be attended by an invited VIP congregation of 80, while proceedings are also televised live on BBC1.

However, Government rules on Covid-19 mean even the royal guests cannot sing God Save The Queen, or anything else, 'because of the potential for increased risk of transmission from aerosol and droplets'. 

(L-R) Prince William, Prince Harry, Meghan Duchess of Sussex and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge attend the annual Armistice Day ceremony in Westminster Abbey in 2018 [File photo]

An Abbey spokesman confirmed that the only voices which can break in to song are those of the socially-distanced choir.

The ruling follows a Government ban on 'communal singing', one of several restrictions which were branded 'farcical' by veterans' groups last night. 

Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan-Smith said: 'If the Government and the British Legion limit Remembrance Sunday to the point that it becomes pointless, then we have to ask ourselves: what did they die for?'

The situation is even more extreme in Scotland where all ceremonies at all local war memorials have been cancelled, by order of the Scottish Government.

Until this week, the general rules against singing had extended to next weekend's main act of commemoration at the Cenotaph, where the Queen will attend the traditional service along with members of the Royal Family, party leaders and Commonwealth diplomats. 

Only 30 veterans will be admitted while all members of the public are excluded and the Metropolitan Police plan to erect giant screens at either end of Whitehall to deter sightseers.

Singing will go ahead at the Cenotaph ceremony, which is held outdoors. Pictured: The Queen lays a wreath at the Cenotaph memorial in 2015 [File photo]

Acting on advice from Public Health England, the Department of Culture, which organises the service, had ruled that only the Choir of the Chapel Royal would be permitted to sing the national anthem and the traditional hymn, O God Our Help In Ages Past.

However, the Government has granted an exemption for this event rather than risk a backlash for preventing the Prince of Wales and the rest of the Royal Family from singing God Save The Queen in front of the Queen herself, live on television.

The situation remains unclear, however, for ceremonies at war memorials around the country. 

In England, these are a matter for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. 

Officials there have been unable to explain why the ban on singing has been lifted at the Cenotaph but not elsewhere.

Veterans are becoming increasingly critical of this year's arrangements, and many are dismayed by the Government's decision to shrink the national commemorations at the Cenotaph to a token presence. 

Vivien Foster, president of the Merchant Navy Association, has been laying the organisation's familiar wreath – in the shape of an anchor – every year for the past two decades. 'The whole situation is farcical,' she said yesterday.  

 Last post for common sense: A ban on singing the national anthem at remembrance events is the latest example of how Covid threatens our sanity, writes ROBERT HARDMAN 

As if this week's threats of police raids on over-sized Christmas Day gatherings were not barmy enough, then along comes something even sillier: a ban on singing the national anthem.

Even the Welsh Government's comedy order prohibiting the sale of kettles does not come close to the absurdity of forbidding loyal ex-servicemen and women and even members of the Royal Family from singing God Save The Queen in the days ahead.

It is merely the latest example of how coronavirus does not merely threaten the health of the vulnerable, but the sanity of us all.

Tomorrow week – Remembrance Sunday – is the most sacred date in the national calendar. By all means, feel free to head for a supermarket that day – as well as the pub, the gym and even the golf club in many parts of Britain.

However, if you are planning to turn up at a war memorial for the traditional service and two-minute silence at 11am, hold your horses. Because special rules apply. Not only must numbers be 'minimised', there is a ban on 'communal singing'. In many places, ceremonies have simply been cancelled. In others, they are closed to all but a few local representatives.

The Queen is pictured with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a National Service to mark the centenary of the Armistice in 2018 [File photo]

To read the new rules for next weekend, you sense that officialdom regards Remembrance Sunday like Cup Final day or Halloween – just another irksome, public order issue that needs some tight controls. Astonishingly, it turns out the Government has not even drafted its own legislation correctly.

The latest Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 bolted on to the 1984 Public Health Act dictate what commemorative events may take place and how. Legally, councils can authorise a ceremony only if 'the gathering takes place to commemorate Remembrance Sunday'.

This is nonsense. We do not gather to 'commemorate Remembrance Sunday'. We gather on Remembrance Sunday to commemorate our war dead, not the day itself. This is just sloppy legislation. If the Government can't even word its own rules accurately, then how the hell can they expect the rest of us to observe them?

The official ministerial guidance to local authorities is blunt and wholly negative. Organisers are repeatedly ordered to 'keep numbers to a minimum', to 'take reasonable steps to ensure the public attend alone' and to take everyone's details.

We all accept these are exceptional times. But this is not just another annual tradition.

For millions, Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day are hallowed days of obligation, occasions when we make an effort to honour those who gave their all for our freedoms. For many, who are still mourning loved ones killed in the line of duty, it is a day of great sadness and pride. The Government has urged people to stay at home and switch on the telly. But for countless people, that is simply not going to suffice.

Where is the common sense here? Everyone accepts the need for social distancing. And the sort of people who turn up at remembrance events do not behave like people piling out of bars at a 10pm curfew or protesters in Trafalgar Square. They come in the quiet expectation of dignity and solemnity. Above all, most services of commemoration are outside. It is why many veterans are dismayed that the traditional open-air Royal British Legion parade at the Cenotaph has virtually disappeared.

Veterans attending the annual Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall in 2016 [File photo]

The turnout of politicians will be the same but that eternally poignant march-past of ex-servicemen and women is off. Obviously, a parade of 10,000 veterans – watched by huge crowds – is out of the question.

However, the Legion had been planning a Covid-compliant alternative. Last month, charities such as Blind Veterans UK were offered ten socially distanced places in a much-reduced parade. All representatives would have to be 'physically fit' and 'have the ability to march for 45 minutes' without escorts or wheelchairs. There would be no room for carers. But at least it was something. The Legion had worked out it could accommodate about 2,000 veterans at well-regulated intervals.

Then Public Health England weighed in. That number has now been reduced to just 30 able-bodied veterans. Everyone else wishing to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph can do so online or by mail order.

Meanwhile, the Met Police are preparing rigorous counter-measures to deter any passers-by from dawdling. Large white screens are to be erected at either end of Whitehall to block the view. 'Move along now, nothing to see here. Just the Queen on her balcony…'

Quite apart from the oppressive sense of overkill, has anyone paused to contemplate what sort of message all these restrictions are sending out? From the outset, the official mindset has got it all wrong. Rather than finding constructive ways to help people commemorate safely and sensibly, the priority has been to shoo them elsewhere. Let them go shopping or drinking instead.

At the same time, people are still banned from 'communal singing' in line with the edict from the Ministry of Housing and Communities.

Following the Government's latest U-turn allowing VIPs to sing at the Cenotaph, officials have hinted that the rules may now be changed for outdoor – but not indoor – ceremonies. As of last night, however, the blanket singing ban remained in place on the Government website.

The ruling has hit other major events. All the Armed Forces taking part in next Saturday's Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall – which will be screened on BBC1 – must remain mute. 'There is no singing by anyone other than the choir and the individual artists,' a Legion spokesperson explained.

Speaking for millions of veterans and their families, no doubt, the President of the Merchant Navy Association, Vivien Foster, sums it all up in one word: 'Ridiculous'.

Elsewhere, the public are left wondering where and how they are allowed to pay their respects.

Truro in Cornwall will have a small invitation-only ceremony at the cathedral. Coventry is among many places holding its official ceremony online. Many towns and villages have taken their lead from the Government and simply cancelled their ceremonies.

Not so much the Last Post as the last straw. 

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