CHURCHES are to reopen for public worship when the lockdown ends on 2 December, the Prime Minister has confirmed.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, Mr Johnson announced a harsher tier system to replace the lockdown. More areas are to be placed in the higher tiers, with more exacting restrictions.
The Covid-19 Winter Plan, however, published on Monday afternoon, allows places of worship to open for congregations in all tiers. In tier one, the rules say: “Open, but cannot interact with more than six people.” For tiers two and three, the rules are identical: “Open, but cannot interact with anyone outside household or support bubble.”
One significant difference relates to weddings. Under the Winter Plan, weddings are permitted again in all tiers. This time, the 15-person limit at a wedding relates to guests. Previously it has included the couple and the officiant. The permitted number at funerals remains at 30 in all tiers. Wedding receptions and wakes are permitted in tiers one and two, with the same limit on numbers. They are banned in tier three.
The Winter Plan states: “The Government . . . recognises the significant sacrifices that people of all faiths have made this year; restrictions have been in place over a number of religious celebrations and observances, and it is thanks to these sacrifices that it has been possible to control the virus. Communal worship will be possible for all faiths in all three tiers, and faith leaders continue to play a key role, consulting on how to make religious practice as safe as possible.”
The nature of services, including carol services, midnight mass, and Christingles is still to be advised, given continued concerns about the risk of transmitting the virus through congregational singing (News, 9 July).
As for social mixing, the plan says that the Government and the devolved administrations are “working together to design a time-limited change to social restrictions over the Christmas period”.
This will not be risk-free, it warns. “Even where it is within the rules, meeting with friends and family over Christmas will be a personal judgement for individuals to take, mindful of the risks to themselves and others, particularly those who are vulnerable.”
The public is advised to remain cautious, “and that wherever possible people should avoid travelling and minimise social contact”. It is hoped to conclude discussions about this break in the restrictions later this week, the plan says.
By way of mitigation, rapid testing — currently being trialled in Liverpool — is to be introduced more widely; and shops and gyms in all areas will be permitted to open, though pubs and restaurants will be allowed only to operate a take-away service in tier three regions. Theatres can open with limited capacity in tiers one and two, but must close in tier three.
The efficiency of the new tests held out hope for closer contact, Mr Johnson said: “The lateral flow testing that gives results within 30 minutes to identify those without symptoms so they can isolate and avoid transmission.
“We’re beginning to deploy these tests in our NHS and in care homes in England so people will once again be able to hug and hold hands with loved ones instead of waving at them through a window.”
A week of daily tests are planned to reduced those who have to quarantine after contact with someone who is Covid-positive.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the C of E’s Recovery Group, said on Monday: “We are encouraged by the confirmation that places of worship will soon be able to reopen for public worship in all tiers and in all parts of the country.
“Churches and cathedrals can now approach Advent and Christmas with more certainty; a time when we know many people will look forward to attending services celebrating the birth of Jesus. We await more detailed guidance and will update our own advice once this is published.”