The Prime Minister’s statement to the House on coronavirus on 23 June 2020 included an update on the opening of places of worship from 4 July. He said:
“I know that many have mourned the closure of places of worship, and this year, Easter, Passover and Eid all occurred during the lockdown. So I am delighted that places of worship will be able to reopen for prayer and services – including weddings with a maximum of 30 people, all subject to social distancing.”
These and other comments are from the “Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered”. With regard to social distancing:
“…given the significant fall in the prevalence of the virus, we can change the two-metre social distancing rule, from 4th July”.
“Where it is possible to keep 2 metres apart people should. But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of ‘one metre plus’, meaning they should remain one metre apart, while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission.”
Some of the guidance on how businesses can reduce the risk by taking certain steps to protect workers and customers will have parallels in relation to meetings of faith groups. These measures include: avoiding face-to-face seating by changing office layouts; reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces; improving ventilation; using protective screens and face coverings; closing non-essential social spaces; providing hand sanitiser; and changing shift patterns so that staff work in set teams.
“Whilst the experts cannot give a precise assessment of how much the risk is reduced, they judge these mitigations would make “1 metre plus” broadly equivalent to the risk at 2 metres if those mitigations are fully implemented. Either will be acceptable and our guidance will change accordingly”.
In the Church of England’s Press Release, the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who leads the Church of England’s Recovery Group, welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement. She said:
“We will not be returning to normality overnight – this is the next step on a journey. We’ve been planning carefully, making detailed advice available for parishes to enable them to prepare to hold services when it is safe and practical to do so. It is important to say that the change in Government guidance is permissive, not prescriptive.
There will still be restrictions and we must all still do everything we can to limit the spread of the virus to protect each other, especially the most vulnerable. The online services and dial-in worship offerings we have become used to will continue.
Detailed advice for parishes and cathedrals is available on the Church of England website. It will be updated, as necessary, in the coming days to reflect the detail of the Government guidance once published.
Weddings will be able to resume, along with other services. Updated advice for couples will be published on our website this week. The Church of England Recovery Group will also issue advice on subjects including singing and music for which a review by Public Health England is currently in progress.”
“We understand that the reference to a maximum of 30 people applies only to weddings and not all services, where numbers will depend on the size of the building and the specific circumstances. The Government will be publishing guidance on places of worship in due course.”
Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, welcomed permission for weddings to resume and the reopening of places of worship but urged a cautious approach to prevent a second spike in cases. She said that the Board of Deputies welcomed the Government’s decision to allow religious services and weddings of up to 30 people from 4 July and had been working with different religious denominations to ensure the right balance between preservation of life and the maintenance and restarting of worship:
“However, on the day that we reveal that the total number of deaths in the Jewish community has reached 500, we would urge people to proceed with caution and stick within the Government’s guidelines to ensure there is no second spike in cases.”
The Cabinet Office updated Staying alert and safe (social distancing) until 4 July on 24 June, but at the time of updating this post (06:03, 24 June), there was no reference to “1 metre plus” distancing, or to the permitting of services in places of worship, it adds nothing to the Prime Minister’s statement. Also on 24 June the Cabinet Office issued Review of two metre social distancing guidance stressing “the severe economic costs to maintaining 2 metre distancing”.
Nevertheless, as we have stated earlier, the definition of “social distancing” is included in “soft law” guidance, and there is consequently no associated offence with the infraction of the recommendations. The restrictions on gatherings, however, are governed by the latest amendment to section 5 Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, SI 350. Various interpretations have been placed upon the meaning and application of the concept of the “maximum of 30 people, all subject to social distancing” for weddings, for which the next amendment to s5 SI 2020/350 should clarify
With regard to social distancing, Cath Noakes, Professor of Civil Engineering at Leeds University tweeted “In case you were wondering, the physics of droplets and aerosols hasn’t changed. 2m is still safer than 1m. And the same mitigation applies – ventilate, wear a face covering, wash your hands, clean surfaces, stay apart”. Indeed.
Further posts will be published when details of the new legislation and guidance are known, which will also be added to our Directory of COVID-19 information – Coronavirus updates – index.