“Step 4” and places of worship

The move to “Step 4” in England on 19 July 2021 will mark will the end of the social distancing legislation which became effective 480 days before. The broad outline of the expected changes was summarized by The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, in his statements to the House of Commons on 5 July 2021, and his update on changes to the self-isolation rules on 6 July 2021This post summarizes the statements made by the Secretary of State, and the issues to be resolved prior to 19 July.

Statement on 5 July 2021

The Government will make an announcement on whether the UK will move into step 4 of the COVID-19 roadmap on 12th July on the basis of its four tests:

  • the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully;
  • evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated;
  • infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS;
  • government’s assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.

If these tests are satisfied:

  • All social distancing guidance will be revoked, including the 2 metre rule, except for in specific settings such as ports of entry and medical settings, “where it would continue to make sense”.
  • It will no longer be a legal requirement to wear face coverings in any setting, including public transport, although government will advise this as a voluntary measure for crowded and enclosed spaces.
  • It will no longer be necessary to work from home.
  • There will be no limit on the number of people who can meet.
  • There will no limit on the number of people who can attend life events such as weddings and funerals
  • There will be no restrictions on communal worship or singing.
  • Legal requirements on how businesses operate will be removed. Capacity caps will all be lifted and there will no longer be any requirement to offer table service.
  • All businesses that were forced to close their doors will be able to open them once again.
  • The cap on named care home visitors will be listed so that families can come together in the ways they choose to do so.
  • Certification will not be required as a condition of entry to businesses. However Covid-status certification may be used at the business’ discretion and, from Step 4 onwards, the NHS Covid pass will be accessible through the NHS app and other digital routes. This will be the main way that people can provide their Covid status—a status that they will achieve once they have completed a full vaccine course, a recent negative test or some other proof of natural immunity.”

Update on 6 July 2021

  • From 16 August, double-vaccinated people will no longer be legally required to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case;
  • To ensure young people can make the most of their education as restrictions continue to ease, the Government also plans to exempt those aged under 18 from self-isolation if they are a close contact;
  • Young people and double-vaccinated individuals identified as close contacts will continue to be advised to take a PCR test, to detect the virus and variants of concern. Anyone who tests positive following the PCR test will still be legally required to self-isolate, irrespective of their vaccination status.

Other statements on Step 4

Progress towards 19 July

If matters proceed as before, these Statements to the House and Press Releases will be followed by departmental guidance (on places of worship, performing arts guidance, &c), with legislation just before (or even after) it becomes effective. In view of the conditional aspect of the Statements and the criterion of the “four tests”, it seems unlikely that further information will be available the decision on Step 4 in England is taken on 12 July. Only after then will the necessary guidance and legislation become available, allowing faith bodies to issue more specific guidance. In his post Coronavirus: What that Challenges Might English Churches Face As They Plan For The Removal Of COVID Restrictions On 19 July?, John Stevens, National Director of FIEC, states that a “round table” meeting with ministers is scheduled for 19 July, “which suggests we may not get much clarity before then”.

HIs post also notes that clarification is required on a number of issues including:

  • whether there will be a legal responsibility to take the guidance into account in risk assessments, a crucial aspect for insurance cover;
  • guidance, if any, on the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces, especially if they are crowded and ventilation is poor [see comment form Grant Shapps, supra];
  • whether there will be guidance on “safe singing”, based inter alia, on local infection rates, such as that in Wales and Scotland.

Within the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, there will also be concerns on a number of issues, such as: use of the common cup; exchanging the Peace; sprinkling of Holy Water; veneration of relics &c; and other “general housekeeping” precautions, which need to be addressed.

On 9 July, the Oxford Diocese e-News noted:

“The Church of England Recovery Group is intending to produce new guidance following a likely decision to move to step 4 later this month. The recovery group will need to wait for the decisions of the Places of Worship taskforce and any subsequent additional detail from Government departments, which means it’s likely that church guidance won’t emerge until the week of the 19th. As ever, we’ll write to all parishes as soon as there is settled information to share.”

Comment

Whatever actions government and local churches decide for Step 4, it should be borne in mind that physics of droplet formation and aerosol transfer have not changed, although the conditions under which these processes occur will be influenced by the number of people attending and participating in services; the local infection rates are also a consideration.

As noted in an earlier post, in the absence of hard science, risk assessment becomes important and Risk is the product of Hazard and Exposure. Information on latest the latest reported infections and percentage of people vaccinated is readily available, down to postcode level, on the official UK government website for data and insights on coronavirus (COVID-19). However, in assessing the application of the relaxed Step 4 provisions to services and other activities, faith organizations will need to take into account those who are particularly vulnerable, those medically unable to be vaccinated, and those to whom vaccination has not yet been offered.

[Updated 12 July 2021 at 08:21]

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Step 4” and places of worship" in Law & Religion UK, 7 July 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/07/07/step-4-and-places-of-worship/

 

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