Health & Safety After Lockdown
So, here we are in Step 4 of the Government’s plan to exit lockdown in England and we find ourselves with an apparent paucity of legal requirements.
Masks are no longer mandatory inside places of worship, there is no formal requirement for social distancing, and we aren’t being told not to sing. Does this mean it’s back to pre-pandemic business as usual?
Predictably, the legal and practical reality is a bit more complicated than that.
Legal duties under Health and Safety legislation
For many of us, the removal of explicit legal ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ is something of a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, we have much greater freedom to decide how to operate in light of the pandemic. On the other hand, deciding how to respond to the continuing reality of the pandemic – including the current wave of infections driven by the Delta variant which may or may not be peaking as I type this article – has become a greater burden on church leaders who can no longer fall back on a prescribed set of measures that are widely expected.
The decision-making requires a greater degree of judgement and discretion on our part now.
In order to understand how to proceed, it is important that we recognise that we haven’t actually lost all of our legal obligations to manage the risk to people’s health and safety associated with Covid.
As I explained more fully in another article, much of our legal duty in relation to Covid stems from the legal duties most churches have under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. To summarise the main duties for churches, this means:
- Churches that employ at least one person have a legal duty of care towards their employees, as well as to anyone else who may be affected by their activities (regardless of whether these activities involve their employees or not).
- Churches in control of premises have a duty of care towards anyone using their premises as a place of work (e.g. contractors, visiting preachers).
Churches that do not employ anyone escape much of the potential for criminal liability under the Health and Safety at Work Act, but can still be liable under civil law if they are found to breach a duty of care that leads to someone’s health or safety being compromised.
This general duty applies to all areas where health or safety may be affected – so clearly this includes a legal obligation to manage Covid-related risk so far as is reasonably practicable (the legal term used to describe the extent of the duty of care). The question then becomes ‘what does it look like to ensure health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable?’
There is, regrettably, no fixed standard for determining what does or doesn’t meet this criterion. The only definitive test occurs when a duty holder is challenged by an enforcing authority, such as a local authority or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and the matter is thrashed out in court.
In some areas of health and safety, the HSE publishes Approved Codes of Practice which have a special legal status – while not explicitly mandatory, the courts tend to presume that organisations should comply with or have a good justification for not doing so.
Prior to the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions on 19 July 2021, it seemed reasonable to expect that the courts would treat the government’s ‘strong guidance’ as being similar in status. Now it is less clear as the remaining guidance we have seems to have softened.
Thus we need to make decisions that we would be comfortable defending in court – particularly if hindsight revealed that our measures had failed to prevent the spread of Covid – but we cannot get a clear idea of exactly what this would look like unless there are a few court cases to establish some legal precedent (and we’d all generally prefer for that not to happen to churches!).
Practical and pastoral
All of this relates to the legal framework within which we must make our decisions, but for many churches the greatest points of concern will be more pastoral in nature.
Almost all churches will face competing pressures to restore a sense of pre-pandemic normality while trying not to turn every Sunday morning into a ‘super spreader’ event, and will face a range of views within our churches, with no available options likely to satisfy everyone. Others have written about the careful balancing of concerns this will require.
In the rest of this article I hope to provide some useful food for thought when grappling with the main pragmatic question: how can we manage the risk appropriately while attempting to restore what we have lost during the restrictions?
To tackle this question, it is helpful to divide the risk reduction options available to us into two broad categories: those which will be controversial with our congregations and heavily impact their experience of worship and fellowship, and those which are comparatively uncontroversial and which most reasonable people would accept.
Which measures fall into which category will vary from church to church, but I would guess that the following will fall into the controversial category:
- Avoiding singing (and corporate reading or reciting). For many this has been the worst loss during the restrictions, and it is right that we should yearn to be able to sing again in church.
- Social distancing and the associated reduction in building capacity it entails, which means fewer people can attend services.
- Wearing masks inside the building, which is at the very least uncomfortable, especially in the summer.
- Imposing limits on mingling between households / bubbles while indoors which limits fellowship.
- Requiring testing before people enter a service (although merely ‘encouraging’ testing may be less controversial, if less effective).
By contrast, there are measures we can consider which are far less controversial. Many of them require extra work, but I suspect more people will be willing to pitch in than would desire to see reduced capacity or a return to not singing.
Of course, some may prove to be more contentious in some churches than others, but a few credible suggestions include:
- Stringent cleaning regimes, especially for surfaces and items which are frequently touched, such as door handles, bannisters, and light switches.
- Personal hygiene measures, including the provision of sanitising gel dispensers and encouraging people to take basic precautions when sneezing or coughing.
- Ventilation, to maximise dispersion of any aerosol particles. This is likely to become more controversial later in the year but may be entirely normal in non-pandemic conditions during warmer weather anyway.
- One-way systems to minimise how often people pass close to each other in corridors or on stairs.
- Avoiding serving refreshments indoors. Outdoors is a viable and often very pleasant alternative if the weather is conducive (although if not, this may drift into the controversial category).
- Differentiated measures for people with differing levels of caution, for example seating areas with different levels of social distancing. Although keep in mind that if half the building is unmasked and half masked, the masked half will soon be exposed to aerosols from the other half. Another option is different services with different degrees of restriction.
So, our key question becomes how far can we manage the risk purely through measures that are less controversial or less detrimental to church activity? The more we can achieve with the second list of measures above, the less we have to resort to the first.
I suspect that while infection levels remain high, we may be unable to completely avoid the more intrusive measures, in which case the question becomes which of these measures is the least bad undesirable option? For example, you may find that most of your congregation is willing to wear masks if that makes the difference of enabling you to seat people closer together, which in turn significantly increases the number of people who can attend each service.
If infections continue to fall, you may be able to progressively relax your control measures further, proceeding in decreasing order of undesirability so that you achieve the greatest improvement to the congregation’s ability to worship for the least increase in risk.
An important point about people who are feeling more cautious
When we find some members of our congregations are uncomfortable about the extent of relaxing of safety measures, we must remember and respect that these feelings may not stem solely from personal self-interest but may reflect concern about the risk church activity is posing to the wider community.
Thus, we should not expect to be able to answer every concern by simply offering people a safer alternative they can opt into for themselves.
As we move into the brave new world of post-lockdown Britain, we face a greater degree of responsibility for deciding how to manage the risk of Covid for ourselves.
As with much of health and safety, the legal requirements are inherently open to some subjective interpretation, so we must make our best judgement and act in a way we could confidently defend in a court of law.
Hopefully, if the wider situation becomes safer, we will be able to shift our reliance on controversial and detrimental safety measures to more palatable ones, which will allow us to restore a sense of normality to our church activities and enable us to recover much of what we have lost from routine worship and fellowship over the past sixteen months.