England is now in the phase of recovery from the pandemic lockdown where most restrictions have been removed.
People can gather in unlimited numbers, both outdoors and indoors. Weddings and Funerals can take place without restrictions imposed in various versions since March 2020, and in churches public worship is no longer governed by restrictions on social distancing and the wearing of facemasks, the absence of refreshments and prohibitions on congregational singing.
Read the latest Government COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship
The guidance emphasises the empowerment of local managers of church buildings and chapels to undertake their own risk assessments, and to be confident that any continuation of restrictions during the current phases that are deemed sensible has the support of Government and the wider community. It is hoped that this will assist in the cautious changes that are required, as opposed to an immediate return to pre-pandemic practice.
The third wave of the pandemic is, however, still rising exponentially, with a forecast of 100,000 infections a day by mid-August and 1000 hospital admissions. While the success of vaccination for the adult population has been laudable, and the impact of two-vaccinations confers much lower risks of severe illness, hospitalisation or death, there remain serious consequences of catching Covid:
- Self-isolation for the many contacts of an infected person resulting in disruption to the lives of those who also are required to quarantine
- The risk — if small — of severe illness, even after the vaccination has been fully administered
- The many younger people still waiting for one or both vaccines, and who remain unprotected (even if for them, Covid is generally a mild illness.)
- The impact of much greater social contact with the removal of restrictions fueling a steep rise in infection rates
- A rise in hospitalisations to levels that may become unsustainable, and in any case, diminish the ability of the NHS to reduce waiting lists for those requiring treatment
- The full extent and longevity of so-called ‘Long-Covid’ appears for a few to affect even those who were asymptomatic at the time of infection and an estimate of up to an additional 1 million long-Covid cases resulting from this third wave of infection may have severe consequences on individuals, their ability to work and their requirement for treatment on the NHS
The Government believes that the warmer weather, and the schools’ long vacation, provides the best time to conduct this experiment in shifting responsibility from regulation to personal choices, and churches will have to play their part in discerning what amounts to responsible practices in gatherings over the next phase.
For this reason, the Prime Minister is urging caution, and a slow return to ‘normality’. Some public transport will require the wearing of masks as a condition of carriage, and many shops will still require their customers and staff to wear a mask, reducing risks of infection. Churches may well decide that masks should still be worn if worship is indoors, and that some restriction on numbers is advisable. Good ventilation is vital, and hand-sanitising is still recommended.
The prohibition on congregational singing indoors is now lifted, but advice is that singing should still be undertaken with masks — at least while the third wave of infections is still raging. Equally important in mitigating the spread of viral-laden aerosols is good ventilation.
The NHS, and the Chief Medical Officers, have warned of a ‘bumpy winter’ ahead, with not only Coronavirus circulating still, but the possibility of a difficult flu season. Already unusually high summer levels of norovirus (the ‘winter vomiting bug’) have been noticed in care homes and nurseries. Therefore, many of the ways in which we have learned to take precautions to limit the spread of Covid-19 will continue to apply for the avoidance of other, less severe, but nonetheless unpleasant infectious diseases that have not been circulating since the winter of 2019–20.