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Covid 19 - When Will Weddings Return To Normal?

Covid 19 - When Will Weddings Return To Normal?

Alison Hargreaves Updated:
8th of March 2023

It's the question we are all asking. Infection rates have been brought under control, the vaccine program is well underway, and we are emerging from lockdown. The government are keen to manage expectations and are making it clear that it will be a gradual return towards normality. We'd all love to be hugging, singing and dancing at weddings soon, but this may be unrealistic.

The below information was last updated in May 2021. It is no longer being updated and being kept for reference purposes only. Please see our article, Weddings after Lockdown in 2021 for the latest information, our summary of what is allowed for weddings at each unlocking step and the links to official government guidance and reliable sources.

couple holding hands

The Prime Minister has addressed the House of Commons to outline the government's roadmap for moving out of the national lockdown in England. The roadmap for England consists of four different steps, with each step only to be introduced if it meets certain requirements based on the data. Read our article on how weddings are affected by each step of unlocking for more information on this.

Studies have shown that the majority of weddings currently planned for 2021 will go ahead as long as numbers increase to over 50 with couples determined to find a way to make it work. But, if the announcement isn't exactly what you'd like for your wedding, what next?

1. Take a breath

Don't rush any decisions. Discuss it with your partner; remember it is your wedding day, and you need the space to make the decision that is right for the two of you. Sleep on it. Your venue and suppliers will be working out what it means to them too and will appreciate the space to work out a helpful solution for you and others.

2. Work out your options

Do you continue on the date planned and accept the restrictions, or postpone in the hope that things will improve? Cancelling should be the last option; it is understandable to feel like throwing the towel in if you can't have the wedding you'd hoped for. However, working with your venue and suppliers to find an acceptable alternative will likely save you both heartache and money. There are so many ways to re-imagine your wedding day and it is worth investing time to explore all the options.

3. Contact your venue and suppliers 

If you need help with your decision, or once you've made your decision, get in touch with your venue and suppliers at the appropriate time. What's an appropriate time? If your wedding is in April or May you'll quite rightly be their highest priority.

Couple in the snow

If your wedding is later in the year

Try to wait until there is more clarity. Your venue and suppliers need to focus first on those who have a matter of weeks to make sure their weddings can happen on the date originally planned, and secondly on those who are unable to proceed as planned because of known restrictions - not assumed restrictions in the future. 

Search for a venue or supplier with availability on your date

What might weddings look like over the next few months?

The Prime Minister hopes to be able to lift the majority of rules by 21st June, but this is dependent on cases, deaths and hospital admissions continuing to fall. The five-week period between each step is to ensure four weeks for data to be gathered with at least 1-week notice if any changes need to be made. Boris Johnson was clear that the decision to move into the next stage will be based on “data not dates” but gave a rough estimation as to when this might be at the earliest. England's lockdown again eased as planned on the 17th of May, so we seem to be currently on track.

So, it is hard to make decisions without being able to picture for sure what 2021 weddings may look like and there is a lot of unhelpful speculation in various forums. While the opinions I am sharing in this piece are my own, they at least come from spending many months understanding all I can about the impact of Covid on weddings and looking at all the ways that we could help make weddings happen, including reading through the insights over 6200 couples have shared with us through our recent survey. 

bride and groom just married

Time scales 

The UK Weddings Taskforce asked for a 1st April re-opening. They will be pushing for the earliest possible responsible re-opening, accepting there may need to be some restrictions for these weddings to take place.  It is understandable that they are concerned about the implications of guests mixing socially in a relatively large group from different parts of the UK.

Boris Johnson assured us that would be the case during Peoples’ Prime Minister’s Questions, with “more normality” by Easter and “a different world” by summer.

This doesn't mean that small weddings won't be possible before then; the government will want to allow legal weddings as soon as possible and the restriction to exceptional circumstances only ("deathbed weddings") is likely to be lifted when lockdown ends.

What is the ideal “safe” number of guests

Weddings with 15 guests are not economically viable and can leave couples and venues vulnerable to contractual issues. However, for some, this number will allow their legal wedding to go ahead. 

A combination of vaccines, rapid testing, and social distancing will reduce risks. All three together is ideal; reducing one will require an increase in another to maintain the same risk reduction.

Infection rates are highest when there is social contact between large numbers. Therefore reducing the amount of social contact or the numbers will reduce infection rates. It would make sense that numbers could be higher at weddings where social contact is reduced. 

Couple having first dance

Venues and event planners are proficient at managing all types of risk; COVID is just one more that they adapt risk assessments to include. 

There is a high level of “social conscience” and guests won’t attend a wedding if there is a chance that they might have been exposed to COVID, nor if they have concerns about being vulnerable. Live streaming is commonplace, making virtual attendance an option. 

Is rapid testing an answer for weddings?

A combination of vaccination and rapid testing is likely to be the solution that allows hugging, singing, and dancing at weddings again.

As of February 2021, the accuracy rate for lateral flow testing is currently between 50-70% in real scenarios. (The 99.9% success rates that some private manufacturers are claiming are from their own data, potentially from using samples from COVID patients in hospital with heavy viral loads.)

However, accuracy levels will improve; we're still at the very early stages of development. Lateral flow testing is already considered the right approach for NHS staff and in schools and is reported to be the solution to open up the entertainment industry including theatres, cinemas, and nightclubs.

Newly weds posing for photos

The most likely solution will involve rapid “lateral flow” tests on arrival. Some couples have said that they’d like to know that they are COVID-free before the wedding day and private PCR testing 72 hours before the wedding should give this peace of mind. Verified tests will almost completely remove any risk of getting "false positives".

It's understandable to be concerned that a positive test from a crucial member of the bridal party could stop the wedding from going ahead, but it is better to pick it up than risk infecting family and friends.

Will regulations change every time the is a new variant?

There were initially concerns that the vaccine or rapid tests might not be effective for new strains. Different manufacturers have slightly different versions of the lateral flow tests. With each significant new variant, each type of test will need to be re-validated as some won't pick up the new strain. However, new strains only affect a small proportion of the population so any adjustments to testing will go unnoticed by most.

A couple of the new variants (the Kent strain and the South African strain) have caused the government to bring in local restrictions. However, this is where Test and Trace could make a real difference. There are concerns around households from different areas of the country mixing. However, weddings are unique in having a really accurate guest list, making Test and Trace simple. Furthermore, guests are likely to report new cases in the week after attending a wedding in order to protect their family and friends who were at the wedding.

Is there an ideal number of guests?

The UK Weddings Taskforce has proposed that venues should be limited to socially distant capacity rather than a fixed number regardless of the venue size. This would be more in line with pubs, restaurants and even shops. As most weddings involve multiple members of the same household, there is an argument that allowing 2m social distancing per person is excessive as those in the same household don't need to be socially distant. 

Completely unlimited numbers would be great, but this is not possible until there has been a chance to evaluate the implications of smaller weddings. 

We are all working towards the same goal; significantly larger numbers at weddings, without additional costs or restrictions, so that we have parity for all types of wedding. 

However, it isn't just about the numbers

In January we looked at the highest priority for 6200 couples with weddings this year. Elements such as walking down the aisle in the normal way are incredibly important to some couples and this should be something that the Taskforce can find solutions for.

At weddings where one of the bridal party has hearing difficulties, not being able to remove masks is a deal-breaker. Others are concerned about not being able to see the expression on their guest's faces during the ceremony. 

Understandably, for many couples, dancing is so important to their wedding celebrations that they won't want to go ahead if this isn't possible.

As more of these important elements can be included, while numbers gradually increase, more couples will feel they can have the wedding they hoped for.

Pie chart detailing which element of a wedding in 2021 is most important to them

How we feel we can reduce the risks using digital COVID security 

At Guides for Brides, we have been working on various solutions since May 2020, with Trusted Trace (track and trace software) being used in 100s of venues during 2020 and the Wedding Safe industry-standard launching in time for weddings to re-open.

  • The industry has digital Track and Trace available for all guests and suppliers, incorporating the ability to upload evidence of COVID test results.
  • Guest and supplier list, with any PCR results, could be supplied to the venue in advance. 
  • COVID-safe guidance could be automatically sent to guests and suppliers before the wedding.
  • Our hope is that optional PCR tests 72 hours in advance might give an argument for members of the bridal party to be exempt from some social distancing restrictions and those with evidence of vaccination or PCR tests could be supplied with identifying wristbands.
  • The Wedding Safe industry-standard will reassure guests.

As vaccination passports won't be used within the UK, it is unlikely that the digital COVID passports widely discussed last year will be a solution for weddings.

Trusted Trace Track and Trace software
Couple abut to have first kiss as married couple

Shielded guests can be protected

Any situation involving interaction with others will remain at higher risk than staying at home but there are measures that vulnerable guests could take, including remote participation encouraged through live streaming.

Some couples are planning to encourage those wanting to keep well away from others to wear a particular colour face coverings, wristband, or ribbon as a signal to others.

Our Wedding Safe industry-standard will also help to reassure them. We understand how important it is to couples and their guests to know that COVID-safety guidance is being followed.

Pie chart detailing the results of which factors were most important to 2021 couples to protect their vulnerable guests

Adjustments for safer Ceremonies

The “seemly and dignified” nature of most wedding ceremonies makes social distancing easy for this part of the wedding.

Temporary legislation to allow legal ceremonies to take place outdoors or in marquees at Approved Venues could protect officiants and guests. 62% of 2021 couples said they could move their ceremony outside if it were permitted.

  • Social distancing during the ceremony could enable guests to safely attend the ceremony while lateral test results are processed, making logistics easier for the venue. 
  • Seating already tends to be in households, and with fewer guests, it is easy to maintain space between households.
  • Could those with negative PCR tests interact as one household to allow for important rituals including walking up the aisle? We have heard how important this is to many brides. 
  • For ceremonies taking place outside or in open-sided marquees, masks wouldn’t be needed which would allow couples to see the expression on their guests’ faces.
  • While the law requires the couple to be inside the Approved Venue for the contractual words, the ceremony could start and end outdoors, with just the couple, the witnesses, and Registrars going inside for a short time, in the same way a Church wedding is conducted. 

Can we reduce pressure on Registrars?

75% of weddings are civil ceremonies or civil partnerships, using Registrars whose responsibilities also include registering births and deaths.     

  • Allowing couples to Give Notice in any district, or for Registrars to deputise for others, would ease the workflow in busy districts. This would help couples who are concerned about not being able to Give Notice in time. It will make it easier for new or postponed couples to confirm venue bookings.
  • Additional fees could be waived by all Registry Offices where Notice of Marriage has expired due to current restrictions. The policy seems to vary between districts. 
  • If the Superintendent Registrars had discretion over the marriages allowed under “Exceptional Circumstances” in their district, depending on local capacity and availability, more weddings could take place during lockdown that would otherwise be a high priority as soon as the lockdown is lifted.

What sort of adjustments could keep guests safe at the Reception?

Most receptions involve socialising and alcohol, which makes social distancing more of a challenge. If attendees are COVID-free, staff and vulnerable guests can keep themselves safe, and the NHS is no longer under pressure, could social distancing be relaxed at receptions?     

  • To keep everyone safe, it would make sense for all guests - or those not yet vaccinated - to have a negative test result before attending the reception.
  • Drinks receptions could be outside or in well-ventilated areas with plenty of space.
  • Dining areas could be well ventilated with guidance to seat households together where possible.
  • As the meal tends to be the only prolonged contact period between guests, seating plans would enable more accurate contact tracing if needed after the wedding.
  • Seating vulnerable guests away from others would keep them safer.
  • Only permitting table service would reduce people gathering or queuing at a buffet or standing at the bar. 
  • The volume of background music could be minimised to reduce guests projecting their voices. 
Couple celebrating their asian wedding

Photos, speeches, cake cutting and other rituals 

  • Photos could be in household groups, or with social distancing between households, or outside.
  • Guests already tend to remain seated for speeches, cake cutting, and any rituals that only involve the couple.

Could we have music and dancing but without crowded dance floors?

Music and dancing are an important part of most weddings. 80% of couples said they’d agree to half the number of guests if it meant they could have dancing at their wedding.

Pie chart demonstrating that 80% of couples would prefer to have a smaller guest list with dancing than a larger guest list with no dancing

It’s unrealistic to expect full social distancing on a dance floor, however, the risks can be significantly reduced. 

  • Dance floors would have more space for guests by using the original size dancefloor but with 70% of the usual guests.
  • Wedding guests already tend to dance in household groups or with those they regularly mix with. 
  • Guests singing on the dancefloor could be discouraged; a good DJ knows which songs to avoid.
  • Music volume moderated to avoid shouting.
  • Live music or singers who may add a risk of aerosol transmission could be 4+ metres from guests or behind a clear screen.
  • A lounge or suitable area could be provided for more vulnerable guests to keep them further away from the dance floor. 
  • Some venues are able to move the dancing outside or into a marquee. However, sound restrictions can make this a challenge in some areas, unless receptions end at 11 pm. 

Receptions in marquees at home or in unregulated buildings

Government guidance has required weddings and receptions to be in COVID-safe venues until now. These are typically venues inspected by the local authority. 

Pie chart indicating where 2021 couples plan to hold their wedding reception

These venues are already familiar with health and safety legislation for food safety, employee safety, and fire safety. They have risk assessments in place for every event, with someone responsible for ensuring that the guidance is followed. COVID is simply another risk to add to their considerations.

However, the same system doesn’t exist for venues where no one has overall responsibility, such as village halls, private houses, and barns, or for marquees on private land. 

Possible solutions for the many couples planning wedding receptions in venues that aren’t classed as COVID-safe may include employing Health and Safety specialists to carry out risk assessments before the event and to ensure those risk assessments, along with government guidelines, are followed during the reception. 

These “COVID Angels” could be the answer to larger weddings too, making it easier to manage large numbers of guests. 

Pie chart detailing the results of survey question about 2021 couples having COVID Angels at their wedding

Reassuring your guests

Your family and friends will be as excited as you are about your wedding going ahead. It’s understandable that they’ll want the same reassurances that you’ve had about the measures your venue and suppliers have gone to in order to keep everyone safe.  

More than half the couples we surveyed feel that simply ensuring that government guidelines are followed, rather than testing and shielding guests and suppliers, would ensure their guests feel safe at weddings. 

Couple celebrating marriage

Whatever guidelines are in place, your venue and suppliers will take them in their stride and give you a day to remember. They are used to making things happen, now let’s make your wedding happen! 

Read About Covid 19

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About the author

Alison Hargreaves

Alison founded Guides for Brides in 1995 and has an unrivalled knowledge of the British wedding industry.

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