Churches were looking forward to June 21st because we hoped that the final lifting of COVID restrictions would include removal of the requirements to socially distance, wear face maks and abstain from singing. I was never convinced that we would see all of that happening, I’ve heard people persistently push on social media and in press briefings for ongoing measures around social distancing and face masks. That’s why I’ve argued for a while that we need to be prepared to think about other things we can do in order to speed up the lifting of restrictions on church gatherings. There is the risk that come the end of July and we may be disappointed again especially if there is still some uncertainty over the exact level of protection offered by the vaccines by that time.
It’s worth picking up on two points now. First of all, there is the response we are seeing from some people such as in this blog piece that points out the inconsistencies in how rules are being applied. If the elite can move freely, if football fans can chant, if professional choirs can sing and if pubs can open, then why can’t we sing in church. Well I can empathise with the feeling but our decision making as Christians has never been about whether we are treated fairly by the world but about what is the right thing to do.
Secondly, a few people have picked up on the point that singing is not forbidden by COVID regulations, rather it is guidance that you should not sing. Some have taken that as a green light to ignore the provisions because they aren’t breaking any laws. Well, not quite. You see whilst getting 100 people to sing together on Sunday may not break the COVID regulations you are likely to come unstuck in other ways. Specifically, by ignoring guidance related to health and safety you are potentially failing to properly risk assess and therefore opening yourself up to litigation under health and safety legislation. Furthermore, we always have to consider the signals that our actions send out to the communities around us.
So, first of all, we have the issue that we have once again experienced delays that will affect our congregations and secondly, we may still find that restrictive guidance goes on longer and that may still cause issues, even if they are not enforced through COVID-19 regulations.
So, I’ve been doing a little thinking about this. I noticed the other day that a church leader had suggested that we should put pressure on the Government to run trial schemes with churches just as they have for football and concerts. Well, it’s probably a bit late in the day now and in reality the concerts and nightclubs should have acted as proof of concept for churches and other venues too. It is a little bit frustrating to be having this conversation now because it was because I thought we might find ourselves in a situation like we are in now. Therefore I suggested that churches should look at a mixture of onsite rapid testing (itself a potential good for society) perhaps in conjunction with exceptions for those vaccinated. However at the itme I could not get any traction for such a suggestion.
However, even if it is a bit late now with lockdown officially only having 4 more weeks to run, there may be some benefit in offering to do a church trial now both to speed up re-opening and to have options available should some restrictions continue or be reintroduced.
My thought process is that if guidance about singing comes under health and safety law then we are potentially outside of strict liability. The issue is less about whether someone has sung or not but rather that we have properly identified and mitigated against risk. We can look at things more in the round. Is it high risk to cram a room full of singers during a coronavirus pandemic? Of course it is and it would be reckless to go against the guidance. But what if at a time when the pandemic was abating we did the following
- Kept some capacity restrictions in place to allow some spacing between bubbles.
- Provided rapid test stations at the entrance to our buildings
- Asked worshippers to also test a few days after the service.
We could potentially exempt the double vaccinated from this. What we would be doing would be mitigating the risks involved in a large indoor gathering. This would also help build up evidence for what is possible in terms of in person meeting. I would argue that this means we have looked at the guidance and appropriately assessed the risk within our context.
It would be great to have a couple of churches ready to volunteer for this and also for national leaders to press the Government on such a trial.