COVID-19 Latest Information for Churches
(Published 26 May 2021)
On Monday 17 May 2021 the government made its latest announcement in relation to the lockdown roadmap following its tests of the continued successful deployment of the vaccination programme, whether the vaccination programme continues to reduce numbers of death and hospitalisation, that infection rates do not surge, and that there are no indications of having to change guidance on account of new variants of the virus. Notwithstanding the watching brief that will continue in that regard (for example regarding the new Indian variant), the roadmap of reducing restrictions has nevertheless continued.
The North-England Conference intentions to permit the re-opening of churches within its territory for face-to-face services from Sabbath 22 May 2021 will therefore continue as planned.
Important notice for churches operating in areas where the new COVID-19 variant is spreading
This new variant is sometimes referred to as the variant first identified in India. It is spreading fastest in the following areas (specific guidance available by clicking on the relevant area):
- Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
- Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council
- Burnley Borough Council
- Kirklees Council
- Leicester City Council
- North Tyneside Council
Churches in these areas should read the guidance provided to help stop the spread - taking particular caution when meeting anyone outside your household or support bubble. In the areas listed above, wherever possible, congregants should try to:
- meet outside rather than inside where possible
- keep 2 metres apart from people that you don’t live with (unless you have formed a support bubble with them), this includes friends and family you don’t live with
- minimise travel in and out of affected areas
What will Churches need to do to reopen?
When we had hoped to open in the late summer many churches completed a risk assessment, however the government moved the country into another lockdown and our plans for reopening did not take place.
We are now able to provide all churches (and companies) with guidance and instructions regarding the risk assessment process should they wish to re-open, entirely focused on safeguarding the health and wellbeing of all those attending churches in NEC. A summary of the information provided to all Pastors and Elders is provided below.
- The government acknowledges that places of worship whilst playing an important role in providing spiritual leadership for many individuals, and bringing communities and generations together, still remain particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. Churches must take this position seriously as they make their plans.
- Churches will need to think carefully whether the benefits achieved by opening are justified by the risks involved, however much they can be mitigated.
- As previous risk assessments will, in many cases, be now several months old, churches wishing to re-open will need to complete the new risk assessment template, which can be downloaded from the ‘useful information’ on this webpage.
- A number of additional documents are also available for download from the ‘useful information’ and provide useful reminders in relation to requirements that churches must ensure have been met. Please note that the references in some material may not entirely apply due to their American sources, however, the guidance remains useful.
- Churches / church plants not worshipping in their own building will need to ensure that the owner of the building has provided them with a risk assessment of the building, and that they include this information in their own completed NEC risk assessment.
- Because of the legal, statutory, and clear health implications surrounding many areas of this activity, completed risk assessments must be signed by the local Pastor (who under government guidelines is deemed the "venue manager", responsible for all activities which take place within the building) and counter-signed by their Health and Safety representative before submitting to NEC for approval. Risk assessments not signed will be returned for signatures to be added.
- It is important to note the increased inclusion within government guidelines of what is termed ‘enforcement provisions’ (see ‘Enforcement’ in the government guidance available here). There are therefore potentially serious implications should a local church:
- open without / before completing a risk assessment;
- open without obtaining the approval of NEC;
- not follow government guidelines or locally enforced restrictions:
- fail to implement suitable control measures; or
- not follow the position stated in their risk assessment (e.g. allowing more individuals to attend than their stated occupancy).
In these circumstances, the “venue manager” (the local Pastor) would effectively place themselves at risk of receiving a Fixed Penalty Notice or prosecution, the cost of which would be the responsibility of the local church if guidelines have not been followed.
For clarity, this would not apply to situations where despite a church having taken all of the correct steps and correctly followed all guidance, an unfortunate or unforeseen situation still arose.
- We would encourage churches to consider consulting with individuals within congregations who may be able to provide assistance by virtue of their profession / expertise, and / or provide information as local developments take place - for example details of a surge in infection rates amongst particular groups. This will provide further assistance in keeping congregations safe.
- We also understand that for most churches, completing the risk assessment will present challenges, particularly in relation to knowledge of health and safety regulations. We would therefore encourage churches to work together to share good practice and resources so that all churches (particularly those smaller in size) are supported to open safely.
- Whether churches choose to re-open for face-to-face worship or not, we would ask that they give careful consideration to the continuation of online services, noting the reach online services have had during lockdown, the possibility that not all members will be able to immediately return to attending face-to-face, and the limitations churches will undoubtedly have until such time as they are permitted to operate to full capacity.
- Churches must submit their completed risk assessment for approval by NEC, sending these by email to Pastor Alan Hush, Executive Secretary. Only when the above steps have been taken and approval obtained will any church be permitted to re-open for services; the earliest date being Sabbath 22 May 2021.
Important notices and changes to the government guidelines as at 17 May 2021
Full details of the government guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic can be found here. The following are a summary of important notices and changes that impact how churches can operate from 17 May are as follows:
- Most life events including baptisms can resume, limited to no more than thirty (30) people. Similarly, weddings and wedding receptions must have no more than thirty (30) people present. Anyone officiating these events is not included.
- Consuming food and drink on church premises is now permitted. When consuming, congregants should remain seated and take steps to minimise any risk of infection. They should not touch communal or shared objects, or handle items other than their own (for example, avoid the use of shared cutlery or dishes).
- There is now no set numerical limit on the number of people who can attend a funeral. Instead, the number of attendees at a funeral will be determined by how many people the church can safely accommodate with social distancing measures in place.
- Broadcasting or filming an act of worship should only involve those people essential for the content of the service, and for technical support to enable people to watch and worship online. If musicians or singers usually form part of worship, they may participate.
- Indoors, a group of up to six (6) singers will be allowed to perform or rehearse for performance with social distancing being maintained at all times. There is no limit on the number of professional singers, however, the following should be observed:
- Acts of singing should take place at the front of the church to a seated audience. Any performers should be positioned in a way that avoids face-to-face performance, as far as possible;
- Always ensure there is a gap of at least 2m between any performers and the first row of worshippers. Further mitigations like screens or other barriers between the performers and worshipper may also be considered;
- Limits should be placed on the duration of any singing, as far as possible;
- Churches should do what they can to improve ventilation to ensure plenty of fresh air whenever possible, including opening windows;
- Indoor communal singing should not take place; and
- For more information, see the principles of safer singing and the principles set out in the performing arts guidance, which must be followed.
- Churches are encouraged to put in place contactless payments. Where this is not an option, cash should be collected in a container that is kept in one place and handled by one individual, as opposed to being passed around.
- Running essential voluntary or public services such as the provision of food banks, other support for the homeless or vulnerable people, or support in an emergency is still permitted.
- Churches should remain aware (communicated by leaders) that social distancing (staying at least 2m away from others) helps to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. The further away congregants can keep from other people, and the less time they spend in close contact with others, the less likely they will be to catch COVID-19 and pass it on to others. Close contact, including hugging, increases the risk of spreading COVID-19. Pastors and local leaders should therefore give consideration to how contact can be restricted, including ensuring services are not unduly long.
- Churches and Pastors should consider how guidance can be communicated to visitors, including before they visit, in a way that is accessible and appropriate for the cultures, languages and reading levels of communities served by the church.
Keeping the church family and visitors safe
Whilst offering guidance on effective practice, the risk assessment template is also intended to help churches decide on whether to open for any or all of their purposes or not - based on their individual, local circumstances and resources.
Remember, while we are permitting churches to re-open in line with government guidance, no church should feel obliged to re-open until they are satisfied that they can do so safely.
We are committed to keeping the position of the re-opening of NEC churches under constant review and will use this webpage to provide updates and any new versions of the risk assessment template. Website updates will of course also be supported by communication to churches in writing and using our social media platforms.
We continue to encourage everyone to continue to familiarise themselves with the government guidance for the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic can be found here, which is the official source of government announcements.
Please be mindful to not follow any communication that may appear for example in local WhatsApp groups, and that has not been circulated via an official government or NEC source. If in doubt, ask questions before acting on the information shared.
Should you have any questions or points of clarification, please do not hesitate to contact Pastor Alan Hush, Executive Secretary at: firstname.lastname@example.org, who in collaboration with the NEC COVID-19 Committee will endeavour to respond as quickly as possible to you.
Thank you for your continued, committed work in this important matter to enable the preaching of the gospel to our family, community, colleagues, and church congregations.