COVID-19 churches’ guidance for “Step 4”

Following the lifting of the majority of legal restrictions in England on 19 July 2021, the Church of England revised its COVID-19 guidance and documentation; this is summarized in an earlier post. Central to the guidance was the document Opening and managing church buildings in step 4 of the Roadmap out of Lockdown, v.1 which collated the relevant parts of earlier guidance into a single document. This was further revised on 1 September with the publication of Opening and managing church buildings in step 4 of the Roadmap out of Lockdown, v.2, and on 7 September, the Church removed from its page of COVID-related guidance, the older and out-of-date documents which had been retained for reference during the first weeks of Stage 4.

This post is a personal view on the more important legal and other issues from the CofE’s revised 12-page document, and that produced by Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Covid-19 Route Map: Step 4 Guidance. Note also Frank’s comment on recent updates from the Church in Wales, where inter alia there is a legal requirement for the wearing of masks in certain situations, as in Scotland.  

CHURCH OF ENGLAND

Overview

The problem regarding the issue of guidance faced by places of worship and others is that in the absence of much of the former legislative provisions, it is difficult to set meaningful benchmarks. By collating the issues covered by several earlier documents, the Church of England’s latest guidance stretches to 12 pages. General issues are discussed on the first page, which is followed by a number of generic headings.

Current situation with Covid-19

  • No vaccine is 100% effective and estimates indicate that ~10% of fully vaccinated people will not produce a robust immune response; there are particular concerns for those who are immunosuppressed and those who are clinically vulnerable to the virus. There are also others who for medical or personal reason have not to be vaccinated.
  • Vaccine efficacy wanes with time and might necessitate an Autumn ‘booster’ programme for those vaccinated earlier this year.
  • Long-Covid is an ongoing concern, with estimates suggesting that somewhere between 10% and 20% of those infected experience continuing health problems for three months or longer.
  • Vaccination cannot be the sole means of containing the spread of the virus and in addition other means of mitigation ought to be recognised when planning public worship and other church activities.

The above information underpins each of the areas considered in the guidance, but this section might be missed by anyone scanning/skim reading the 12-page document. A common theme in social media communications from congregations/church choirs/choral societies is “we are impressed with the precautions taken, and feel safe now”. However, there is a danger that such a response may give rise to a degree of complacency, and a reluctance to revisit risk assessments once completed. In relation to COVID-19, “safety” is a relative concept changing with time, and an awareness of the on-going risks is important. 

Legal requirements and decision making

This section on legal requirements reiterates those areas which are no longer subject to legal control: capacity limits if churches; social distancing; face coverings; attendance at weddings & funerals; choral and congregational singing; bellringing; and face coverings. Important aspects within the guidance are:

  • Who make the decision on what happens in church settings and at events held in church buildings? The guidance clearly states that the responsibility for making decisions about how to proceed lies with the incumbent. This applies to acts of worship, to events run by the PCC or church community, and to decisions on whether to hire out spaces or allow other events to proceed.

“Incumbents should feel empowered to make locally appropriate decisions, including taking different approaches to different types of services and events where the risks may vary. Your Archdeacon may be able to help if you would appreciate support with this”.

For parishes in vacancy, the Area Dean and Churchwardens legally become ‘sequestrators’, i.e. the Bishop’s officers in the parish. During the vacancy, the Area Dean is the first point of contact for Churchwardens and others seeking advice and support in the day-to-day running of the parish, (Guidelines for a Parish in Vacancy, Diocese of Southwark, January 2021).

  • Do we still need to do a risk assessment? It is important that the person acting as the ‘venue manager’ carries out a risk assessment, which is part of keeping oneself, volunteers, staff and visitors safe. The template and guidance provided in the DBEIS and DDCSM, Events and Attractions guidance may be used, or alternatively, the Church of England’s own template, (scroll down) whichever works better for the context. Whatever template is used, the assessment should be up to date and reviewed on a regular basis.

Areas which are still covered by legislative controls

  • Test and Trace/Self-isolation Anyone who develops coronavirus symptoms should self-isolate and immediately book at PCR test. If this is positive they will be asked to self-isolate for 10 days. This will remain the law. It is also necessary to self-isolate when informed to do so by NHS Test and Trace, e.g. after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive. This remains the law, regardless of vaccination status.

However, from 16 August, those who are fully vaccinated and those under 18 have been exempt from the requirement to self-isolate if they are a contact of a positive case. Instead the advice is to take a PCR test as soon as possible.

  • Cleaning and disinfection If there is a known case of coronavirus then cleaning and disinfection will be necessary; or closing for at least 48 hours. Public Health England (PHE) has specific guidance, including the minimum requirements for  PPE &c. HASAWA 1974 may also be applicable.
  • Reservation of Holy Communion Inclusion of this contrasts with other aspects of the guidance since this area is regulated by ecclesiastical legislation, which may not be obvious from the statement “[r]eservation of Holy Communion in churches is regulated by law”. The advice states:

“To reserve the sacrament for reasons of safety (e.g. until a minister who is not clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) is available to consume left-over consecrated bread or wine), advice should be sought from the archdeacon.”

With regard to guidance  previously issued by the Church of England, although the current advice links to additional guidance, as from 7 September the Church removed “the older and out-of-date documents which had been retained for reference during the first weeks of Stage 4”.


CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF ENGLAND AND WALES

The Church of England is not alone in facing the “guidance dilemma” and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) has issued Covid-19 Route Map: Step 4 Guidance. This covers roughly the same ground, with the addition of two Appendices: I – Recommended Key Mitigating Actions against Virus Transmission in Churches which should continue post 19th July 2021; and II – Cleaning spillages of body fluids in all situations. There is also a set of guidance from the safe use of parish halls and other ancillary spaces, produced by the Catholic Insurance Service (CIS), Making your Parish Centre Secure, A guide to COVID-secure Parish Centres for clergy, staff and volunteers. This sets out the obligations on both Church authorities and groups and hirers.

The CBCEW advice notes that the Health and Safety Executive has issued new guidance for employers and for organisations, which makes clear that a duty to keep premises safe continues beyond the removal of any covid-19 legislation. “[T]he Government has stated that changes moving forward would be on a risk-based approach for all organisations with the responsibility to ensure appropriate measures to safeguard public health sitting with the management of the organisation.

It highlights the importance of the Prevailing Local Conditions, noting:

“All places of worship should always consider the prevailing local conditions for the virus. Special consideration should be given to rates at which people are being vaccinated in the locality, the prevalence of new variants of the virus, the local rates of hospital admissions and any local public health advice. These data can be obtained from the Director of Public Health at the local authority (in England) or the Local Health Board (in Wales), or the local Environmental Health Department, and it is important to have knowledge of these figures.”

Appendix I of the CBCEW guidance provides a valuable check list entitled “Key Mitigating Actions against Virus Transmission in Churches” which stresses: the continuing importance of ventilating buildings well (especially during and between services); cleaning high frequency touch points in buildings after each act of worship; thoroughly cleaning the church once a week; and clearing spillages of body fluids. It also notes:

“The risk of surface contamination while generally low is higher where there is long exposure time in the building, ventilation is poor, there is a high throughput of people, and where there is greater aerosol generation. Mitigating (sic) against these reduces risk.”

Specific differences between the CBCEW guidance and that of the Church of England include [emphasis added]:

  • “Holy Communion will continue to be under one kind and the ministers will continue to sanitise their hands beforehand and wear a face covering whilst distributing. Communion is recommended to be distributed in the hand but those who wish to receive on the tongue may do so.” [CBCEW]

The Church of England gives three possibilities for administration of the sacraments: 1) under the form of bread alone, mindful that the president must still receive in both kinds; 2) in both kinds in the customary manner with a shared cup or chalice used to administer the consecrated wine; 3) in both kinds by simultaneous administration [the link to the CofE page no longer exists; however, there is an explanation is here]. Intinction should not be practised by individual communicants, and methods of administering the wine other than by means of a shared cup or simultaneous administration should not be employed.

  • The Church of England strongly opposes the use of concentrated chorine-based cleaners:

“Do NOT use any household detergents or disinfectants containing chlorine (1000 ppm dilution) on any historic surface since these could cause permanent damage…Seek advice from a conservator [a “dead link” in the document] before undertaking any cleaning to more fragile historic surfaces.”

However, the Roman Catholic EW Guidance permits lower dilutions of these cleaning solutions; 10,000ppm hypochlorite solution (1:10 chlorine releasing eg bleach to water) for spillages of blood, (but not directly on urine as “this can release irritant chlorine gas”.


David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "COVID-19 churches’ guidance for “Step 4”" in Law & Religion UK, 10 September 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/09/10/covid-19-churches-guidance-for-step-4/

 

4 thoughts on “COVID-19 churches’ guidance for “Step 4”

  1. Thank you, but the introductory remarks miss, as is often the case in Britain, a key factor. Precautions are not just about current protection of the vulnerable, but the longer-term protection of us all.
    As the infection levels in Britain continue to rise, not only is that a threat to those who become infected and suffer some of the severe effects of the virus, even dying, it is also a threat to the usefulness of the vaccines that are the long-term hope of protecting everyone in the world. You may have seen the earlier article along these lines in The Lancet https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)01589-0/fulltext. Nature has also published a similar piece https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01938-4.
    If these feel a little old, just today I was reading https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/09/what-do-we-know-so-far-about-the-new-mu-covid-19-variant-and-how-can-we-prevent-further-mutations/.
    Church decisions should be made in the light of this wider, global and long-term perspective.

    • Thank you for pointing out the error. This was in the original document of the CBCEW, but is one I missed when copying the quotation. dp

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