Round table with the minister of faith

Roundtable with the Minister for Faith - 19 July Covid Changes

This afternoon we had a roundtable for church leaders with Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, the Minister for Faith in the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), to discuss the implications of the lifting of legal Covid restrictions for churches from 19 July.

The Minister began by thanking churches for their support of the government vaccination programme, which was key to enabling the government to implement Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown.

The meeting was brief because there was little for the Minister or officials to add to the guidance for Places of Worship. This makes it clear that it is a matter for local venues to determine whether any protective measures/mitigations should continue to be observed (eg. masks, social distancing). The guidance may be amended to make clearer that individual venues have the right to impose restrictions such as mask-wearing if they chose to do so.

Some concern was expressed about the reintroduction of the use of a common cup for communion. It was also stressed to the Minister that if it subsequently became necessary to re-introduce Covid restrictions, the government should not restrict the practice of worship in churches (i.e. singing).

The Minister was keen to hear how churches and denominations will respond to this new context.

The overall view was one of caution in exercising the restored legal freedoms. Many churches and groups will continue to observe social distancing, recommend mask-wearing, and permit singing in masks. Particular concerns were expressed about the need to be cautious in regard to communities that have a low vaccine uptake amongst older people.

Officials pointed out that the challenge with congregational singing was that you could not know which individuals in the congregation might be a ‘super-spreader'. The Minister was asked what percentage difference the wearing of masks while singing would make to the risk of Covid infection, but no figure was available. If the benefit of wearing masks were shown to be very low, then more cautious churches would no longer recommend them.

The Minister and officials emphasised that the three mitigations of ventilation, social distancing, and mask-wearing all contribute to reducing the risk of Covid transmission and that churches must be prepared to use ‘all the tools in the toolbox’ in light of their local circumstances. They also encouraged the continued engagement of churches with the NHS test and trace system.

I shared my impression from my engagement with FIEC churches that most were unlikely to continue to recommend social distancing and mask-wearing and would reintroduce congregational singing, but that they would also likely make provision for people who were more cautious/clinically vulnerable by means of designated areas of seating or alternative services for those who wish to continue observing the restrictions.

This was first published on John Stevens' blog.

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