13 July 2021
The UK Government has announced that they will remove outstanding legal restrictions on social contact, life events, face coverings, and the closure of venues on 19 July.
The Prime Minister sounded a note of caution nonetheless. Rates of Covid-19 infections continue to rise, and are expected to peak in late August, and that will inevitably see a rise in hospital admissions, even if the strong link between rates of infection and serious disease and death has been considerably weakened by the effectiveness of the vaccination programme.
Boris Johnson said that personal responsibility in ensuring a slow easing of the restrictions, such as wearing a mask or limiting numbers in crowded indoor spaces, would determine how steep is the rise in both infections and deaths. Wearing masks on public transport and in crowded areas is “expected and recommended.” He said that “We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday 19 July to life as it was before Covid. It requires constant vigilance, it means thinking about others as well as yourself.”
A fresh set of decisions
For churches this will mean that with the removal of legal restrictions comes a fresh set of decisions about what ‘responsible’ actions should now be taken.
Many will rejoice in enabling more people to attend public worship, but hand sanitising, a 1 metre distance rule and the wearing of a mask will continue to be advisable.
The vexed question of singing remains unanswered, but some recent research suggests that singing while masked poses no more significant a risk of infecting others than not singing at all. Singing outdoors has been an option for some time already.
Legal limits on numbers attending weddings or funerals will also be lifted, but with similar notes of caution about how people should respond being expressed, although that is less of an issue with wedding services than with the reception that follows, where, indoors and with drink available, risks of infection run much higher.
We wait to see what the so-called ‘exit wave’ of infections looks like (an acceleration of an existing third wave of infections) and how large is the rise in death rates, which remain very low compared to January 2021’s peak of over 1500 a day. There is also a warning that the coming winter will be tough on the NHS, and a re-instatement of some restrictions is possible. Boris Johnson has said that he would “rule nothing out”.
This means that many of the restrictions under which our places of worship have been operating can now be removed. How fast and how far this is the case will be down to individual church leadership. We are moving from a regime of ‘must’ to one of ‘you ought to’, or ‘we strongly advise you’, which poses its own challenges to local churches and congregations, where policy will continue to be based upon risk assessments for public worship, home groups, singing and so forth.
The Evangelical Alliance’s, head of advocacy. Danny Webster wrote that churches should “…use these freedoms responsibly… with infections rising, it is clear that risks remain, so a cautious approach is probably called for.
“As we emerge from this pandemic, let’s make grace our primary value. As churches take different steps, we need to show compassion and understanding as people wrestle through the implications and come to differing conclusions. Let’s celebrate that we can worship together more freely, but also continue to love and care for our neighbour.”
Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said that they would await the updated Government advice for places of worship and adapt their guidance to churches accordingly.
She added: “I welcome the Prime Minister’s presentation of the latest scientific data which underpins their decision in principle to lift most restrictions from July 19.
“The vaccination programme has been an answer to prayer but, while it has transformed the outlook of the pandemic, it has not eliminated all risk.
“So it is right, as the Prime Minister has said, that we all must exercise personal responsibility and carefully manage the risks from Covid-19.
“As Christians, called to love our neighbour as ourselves, we must also exercise collective responsibility and continue to take appropriate precautions to protect others.”
The Baptist Union of Great Britain said:
“We intend to move away from listing mandatory requirements and suggestions of best practice. Instead, we will outline some principles and questions to consider that will enable churches in their own reflection and decision-making. Depending on further Government announcements and documents, we hope to publish this revised guidance during the week starting 12 July.”
Current UK Government COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship