Covid information for churches

Every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of this information, but it should not be relied upon for the purposes of legal advice.

Where are we now?

On April 18 2022 all but one of the Covid-19 regulations made by Welsh Government under the Public Health Act 1984 were suspended. The single remaining exception is the requirement to wear face coverings in health and social care settings – which would include in places of worship and community centres when being used for such purposes.

In all other respects, in purely legal terms, the responsibilities of all employers, premises managers and trustees and event organisers – including those linked to places of worship and faith communities – have reverted to those which applied pre-pandemic (in February 2020). Welsh Government’s summary of that legal position can be found here.

Welsh Government in March 2022 produced a long term strategy for living with endemic (rather than pandemic) coronavirus. This envisages two broad scenarios:

Covid Stable: We still expect to encounter additional waves of infection. We expect new variants to emerge, and some may become dominant. But these waves will not likely put unsustainable pressure on the Health and Social Care system. Vaccines and other pharmaceutical interventions are expected to remain effective in preventing serious illness. We consider this the most likely scenario….
Under Covid Stable we expect to integrate Covid-specific approaches into our public health response for communicable diseases, and in particular respiratory infections. This will mean surveillance and reporting of Covid-19 will be communicated alongside other respiratory infections, in turn providing greater context and comparators. The public health response to outbreaks will follow well-established protocols for communicable diseases.

Covid Urgent: This is a possibility we need to plan for. A new variant could emerge that has a high level of vaccine escape or other advantages that puts large numbers of people at risk of severe illness, for example similar to the levels we saw during the alpha wave in December 2020. This may require all of us to work together to take actions to protect others. … Under a Covid Urgent scenario we would need to respond collectively to bring rates of infection down enough for interventions such as targeted vaccinations or rapid deployment of treatments. …. We expect that under Covid Urgent we would provide clear guidance in areas such as wearing face coverings, working from home, taking extra care when visiting vulnerable people and taking other precautions.

The current situation is viewed as Covid Stable. However, Covid remains prevalent in Wales and the understanding and attitudes of many members of the public towards the risk of catching contagious illnesses has changed due to the experience of the pandemic. The implementation of legal and moral duties, therefore, is now happening in a different context from that which prevailed in February 2020, and simply reverting to the practices of that time may be neither desirable nor appropriate.

It is for the appropriate governing/managing body of each place of worship to understand their legal position. Congregations which are part of a denomination should seek advice from their denominational authorities in the first instance. Those which are not part of such a body may need to seek their own professional advice. This paper is issued as general information only and cannot cover all possible circumstances or governance arrangements.

What are the responsibilities of employers, premises managers and trustees, and event organisers?

In general terms, the main legal responsibilities fall into four overlapping categories. The obligations in each of these categories were referenced in, and impacted by, the Covid-19 regulatory regime in Wales. They have now reverted, in purely legal terms, to the position in February 2020.

  1. Health and safety: The standard, pre February 2020,health and safety legislation applies especially to employers with regard to their employees (including those who work remotely) and members of the public who access their premises, and a complete guide can be found on the Health and Safety Executive website. The HSE’s summary guide provides a useful starting point. In some circumstances these legal duties extend to other workers (such as members of the clergy, who are usually office-holders rather than employees) and to volunteers. Even where there is no direct legal duty, there is a moral responsibility to ensure the health and safety of these people and others. Although specific Covid risk assessments are no longer mandatory, Covid remains a public health risk and HSE advice for workplaces can be found here.
  2. Safeguarding: There are legal obligations to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are kept safe on faith premises and during religious activities. Safeguarding responsibilities and risk assessments include keeping children, young people and vulnerable adults safe from communicable diseases, and Welsh Government Covid guidance required that the risk of transmitting Covid to children, vulnerable adults and their families/carers be added to the risks to be assessed. If churches revert to using only their pre-Covid risk assessment templates, this would not continue. Denominational safeguarding advisers, or the umbrella body used by congregations to arrange DBS checks, can usually provide advice on particular situations and requirements. Current Welsh Government guidance on Covid safety in child care and play settings can be found here.
  3. Fire safety: All premises managers and trustees have legal obligations to ensure that fire risks are minimised and mitigated on their premises. Fire risk assessment was specifically included in Welsh Government’s Covid regulations, so that all premises that needed to make a Covid risk assessment also needed to make a fire risk assessment. This was to try and avoid situations where (for example) extra ventilation or one way systems were created by propping fire doors open, replacing one risk with another.
  4. Data protection: The Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) imposes obligations on all those who collect data about individuals to collect, process and keep it safely, and to destroy it when no longer required. Welsh Government has produced guidance on collecting data to assist the Test, Trace, Protect service in Wales (which is still operational).
    Places of worship and faith communities should be aware that the legal basis provided by the Covid regulations for collecting names and contact details of all those attending worship or other events has now ended, and as religious allegiance and health status are considered to be particularly sensitive under data protection rules it is especially important that such data collection, retention and destruction in future is well controlled. The Information Commissioner’s Office has produced guidance on continued data collection. This includes data collected to fulfil responsibilities 1-3 above. Asking people to sign a list on which the names and contact details of others are publicly visible will not be compliant with data protection regulations.

There are other legal obligations which apply in particular circumstances. Many denominations provide advice and support to their congregations on fulfilling these obligations. Congregations which are not part of a denomination should ensure that they seek good and accurate sources of information, and access professional advice when required.

Risk assessment

It is a key aspect of each of the categories of responsibility listed above to identify, assess and reduce any risks associated with them, and to mitigate the effects of the risks that remain.

The Health & Safety Executive website provides a helpful guide to carrying out health and safety risk assessments in workplaces, and the principles can be applied to other premises and other categories of risk also – such as fire safety. Denominations and safeguarding umbrella bodies produce templates for Safeguarding risk assessments. Welsh Government has produced a useful check list of public health measures that those managing premises may wish to consider following a risk assessment.

The Welsh Government All Wales Covid -19 Risk assessment tool is geared at employees, but is a useful means for all individuals to review their own personal risk, which can then inform discussion about what they are prepared and able to do and any adjustments that could be made to the work/volunteering activity or environment. If this tool is recommended to individuals, care should be taken that any information which is revealed as a result is treated respectfully, confidentially and in accordance with data protection regulations.

What about continuing coronavirus?

Welsh Government has issued public health advice regarding safety with regard to coronavirus and other communicable diseases for employers, businesses and organisations (including places of worship and faith groups) and a checklist of possible actions to implement that advice. Although the guidance does not in itself impose legal obligations, it does provide helpful advice to trustees, managers and event organisers in fulfilling their legal and moral obligations in this regard.

Our assiduous attention to hand hygiene, social distancing and so on has reduced infection over the past two years not only from Covid 19 but from other flu and other viruses too. Many will not wish to lose the gains that have thereby been achieved in public health.

The Welsh Government advice covers 7 specific public health control measures which should be considered in any formal or informal risk assessment. Follow the link for the full advice – below are comments on matters which may be of particular importance to places of worship and events organised by faith communities.

Sufficient ventilation

Improving ventilation became a particular requirement during the pandemic. It should be noted that adequate ventilation is a legal obligation in any case in all workplaces, and the pandemic experience may assist in achieving improved ventilation on a permanent basis. It should be noted that improved ventilation should not be achieved at the expense of increased fire risk, which is why it is important that a risk assessment should cover all risks (not just coronavirus). Keeping premises warm, especially when vulnerable people are likely to be present, should also be considered within the context of ventilation.

Robust cleaning, personal hygiene and hand washing practices

These matters also became better known during the pandemic. Places of worship and community centres may well find it helpful to review their cleaning arrangements on a permanent basis, to ensure the safety both of the cleaners and of the users of the premises. Premises managers should also ensure that their toilet and washroom facilities are always clean and well equipped with soap, water, towels, toilet paper, hygienic disposal units, etc. In small premises without washrooms, it will be wise to continue to provide hand sanitisers. Where food and drink are served, special care needs to be taken in this regard and food hygiene regulations and guidance should be understood and followed.
Careful consideration should be given in risk assessing whether to continue the practice of sanitising hands prior to (for example) participation in baptism, handling communion elements, ordination or the laying on of hands.

Training

The best risk assessment is useless unless it is implemented on each and every occasion by people who have read and understood it and know how to implement it. Training need not be formal and certificated (although in the largest places of worship and community centres it may need to be) but can be a simple ‘walk-through’ of the premises and the procedures for admitting, seating, guiding and evacuating users. All those who are likely to be perceived by the public as “in charge” (such as worship leaders, door stewards, etc) need to undergo this training, be informed of any changes, and regularly refresh their own knowledge.

A reminder to the congregation about such issues just before any event, including worship, may carry on so that we do not lose what we gained from the Covid experience. This may be done orally or by using a notices sheet or similar.

Physical distancing

This is a measure that was new for most people during the pandemic, but it is likely that many will for some time remain inhibited about close physical contact outside their immediate circle, and that we will be less tolerant of being near people who are coughing, sneezing or visibly unwell. This is partly a matter of personal responsibility and care for one another, but premises managers may wish to consider (for example) reducing the numbers permitted in meeting rooms below the maximum allowed by fire risk assessment; spacing seating a little further away from one another than previously; maintaining table service at catered events to avoid close queuing; and in large places of worship and community halls reserving an area of seating for those who wish to maintain physical distance.

Working from home

The pandemic saw expansion of the possibilities for carrying out work and voluntary activity – especially attending meetings – from home. However, churches will be aware that not all people are able or willing to do so, and that some disabilities and health conditions make online participation more difficult or impossible (while other disabilities and health conditions make participation in person difficult or impossible). It is Welsh Government policy that 30% of paid work should continue to be carried out remotely (from home or from remote working hubs). Many clergy and church workers have always worked from home and have valuable experience to contribute to others who are considering working in this way on a permanent basis. Volunteers for administrative posts (such as secretary or treasurer) also often do so from home. However, much volunteering necessarily involves face-to-face interaction with others. Whether carried out remotely or in a place of worship, community centre or office, both paid workers and volunteers are entitled to consideration for their health, safety and well-being while doing so, and risk assessment should be carried out.

Exclusion of symptomatic individuals and individuals who have communicable diseases

The presence of knowingly infectious individuals in a place of worship, community centre or workplace, even when legal, has increasingly been seen as inconsiderate and anti-social behaviour. This is likely to continue to be true, whether the illness is Covid-19 or something else such as a cold or influenza. This should be taken into account in risk assessments, and it may be appropriate to ask anyone who is unwell to stay away – or to work, volunteer or participate remotely if possible. Equally, the fact that working or volunteering remotely is now more possible than it was should not be used as a reason to put pressure on individuals to continue to work or volunteer when they are feeling ill or are medically unfit to do so. This too should be taken into account in risk assessment.
As only individuals with specified symptoms can currently order free lateral flow tests, it may not be appropriate to require that such tests be used prior to attendance at worship or another event, but it can be recommended. There is now no legal underpinning to requiring people to show the result of a lateral flow (or any other medical) test prior to admission to premises, and except in very limited circumstances (such as working with especially vulnerable individuals) this is no longer recommended. If any medical information is asked for, or provided voluntarily, it must be stored and destroyed in accordance with data protection requirements and should never be passed on to third parties without the permission of the person concerned. (See Welsh Government guidance regarding sharing information with Test, Trace, Protect).

Vaccination

Many places of worship supported Welsh Government’s vaccination strategy during 2021, and some will wish to continue to do so during 2022, whether by encouraging individuals to be vaccinated, displaying posters and informative material, or providing premises as a vaccination centre. Some places of worship may wish to consider publicising or participating in vaccination against other communicable diseases also.

However, a policy of mandatory vaccination for staff and/or volunteers would exclude those who for whatever reason fail to meet the requirement. Unless there is a strong and well articulated case, this is likely to be a divisive practice and an infringement of staff/volunteers’ privacy. 

Welsh Government advice covers three additional topics:

  • Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (previously known as ‘shielding’): Although advice to ‘shield’ was paused in Wales on 1 April 2021, some people still need to take extra care. Welsh Government continues to provide detailed guidance for this group of people. Where places of worship or event organisers are aware that some of those attending fall into this group, they should consult with them about safety measures, and will wish to take extra care ensuring that appropriate precautions are in place.
  • Keeping records of staff or visitors: See the section on Data protection above
  • Wearing face coverings: Welsh Government continues to encourage the wearing of face coverings, especially in crowded indoor spaces, although it is no longer required by law except in health and care settings. Some people whose immunity is compromised or who have respiratory conditions such as asthma may be medically advised, or may wish, to continue to wear face coverings to protect themselves. Equally, those who feel ill but attend events or workplaces may wish to wear face coverings to protect others. While there is no legal underpinning to requiring the wearing of face coverings other than in health and care settings, it can still be advised by means of visual or oral notices, and anyone who chooses to do so should be supported in that choice. Congregations should consider continuing to provide a stock of disposable face coverings, along with hand sanitiser, at the entrance to the building. In making initial welcomes and announcements, anyone who is coughing or sneezing may be encouraged to wear a face covering for the comfort and safety of others. Welsh Government recommends using a three-layer face covering (rather than a makeshift substitute such as an ordinary scarf), and they should be worn correctly and fit well.

“Long Covid”

Welsh Government guidance does not reference “Long Covid”. Many people who have had Covid – even mildly – find that symptoms of lethargy, exhaustion, muscle pain and others continue for a long time. Churches will wish to offer pastoral care to such people, and to be considerate of those who find working or volunteering difficult or need to cut back, perhaps for a lengthy period of time. Employers may wish to review the adequacy of their sick leave and sick pay policies considering the prevalence of this condition.

Other sources of information and guidance

This section will be periodically updated.

Gethin Rhys  25.04.2022