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Churches exempt from compulsory masks, but Bishop of London counsels caution

30 November 2021

ALAMY

Most shoppers wearing masks in Bristol city centre on Tuesday, when the new rules came into effect

Most shoppers wearing masks in Bristol city centre on Tuesday, when the new rules came into effect

10 December update: Church Covid guidance has now changed. See updated story here


PLACES of worship are once again exempt from the latest government rules on compulsory mask-wearing, introduced in England on Tuesday in response to the feared spread of the new Covid variant, Omicron.

“At times like these, the Vicar’s presence is so reassuring”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has nonetheless urged churches and churchgoers to take extra precautions this Advent and Christmas.

Omicron was first identified in South Africa. Early analysis suggests that the variant is more transmissible, carries a higher re-infection risk, and that vaccines may be less effective against it. At the time of writing, 14 cases of the variant have been detected in the UK.

The new legal requirement to wear masks, announced by the Prime Minister in advance on Sunday, applies to shops, banks, post offices, hairdressers, and on public transport, unless an individual is exempt. It was already a requirement of Transport for London that passengers wear face coverings, although the continued wearing of face coverings while travelling had visibly reduced. Hospitality venues are exempt, except for takeaway venues which do not have seating space.

People arriving into the UK are now required to take a PCR test at their own expense and self-isolate for ten days after a positive result. The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have argued that everyone arriving in the UK should have to isolate for eight days regardless of a test result. Under those jurisdictions, unlike in England, laws on mask-wearing have never been relaxed.

Mr Johnson described the new rules as “proportionate and responsible” to slow the spread of Omicron. He later urged the public not to cancel Christmas plans or parties, however, nor children’s nativity plays. On Monday, the Government also expanded the role-out of Covid-19 boosters, now to be offered to all UK adults three months after their second injection.

Responding to the announcement, Bishop Mullally, who leads the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said on Monday that caution and patience were required until more was known about the variant.

“The emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is, understandably, a concern for all of us. We are grateful to the scientists around the world who have identified this strain so quickly and are working hard to learn more about it. As yet, little is known about its potential impact, and we must exercise patience as we wait for further information. As we do so, there are important steps we should take now to protect ourselves and each another.

“The Government has outlined the return of compulsory face coverings in shops and on public transport in England, and we should also continue to take other public-health precautions that, by now, are very familiar, such as regular hand-washing, observing physical distancing, and ensuring good ventilation indoors.

“If you are eligible, please also have your booster jab as soon as it is available. Meanwhile we are awaiting any new government regulations and guidance, and will update our advice for churches accordingly.”

Government guidance on face coverings was published on Tuesday afternoon after Parliament brought the new restrictions into law. Places of worship are not mentioned in the list of venues that now require people to wear face coverings.

The Church of England coronavirus pages were subsequently updated with new guidance, which reiterated the need for individual choice. Incumbents remain responsible for deciding what precautions to take within their churches, such as social distancing and mask wearing.

“Where we are now means we are being asked to take even more personal responsibility around coronavirus than when we were compelled to adhere to Government restrictions. . . In every situation there is likely to be a range of feeling about risk, both to ourselves and to others, that will need to be accommodated by our churches in a way appropriate to each of them.

Fresh calls for vaccine equality. The Primates of the Anglican Communion have called on the Special Session of the World Health Assembly — the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation — to “be bold and courageous” in addressing and improving equality both in vaccine distribution and education to counter vaccine hesitancy around the world.

In their Communiqué, published after the Primates’ Meeting, which took place virtually last week, they write: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and deepened fault lines between rich and poor in our world.

“This is powerfully demonstrated in the unequal distribution of vaccines. We are united in calling for greater vaccine equity, based on a spirit not of charity but of recognising the common good in resolving the current disparity. We call for generosity from those who have -towards those who have not and for a greater acknowledgment of the effect of the pandemic on health and education.”

The Communiqué also notes the Primates’ conversations on the climate crisis and COP26; the launch of the Anglican Communion Science Commission; the Lambeth Conference 2022; and the next Primates’ Meeting, due to be held in Rome in 2022. 

Speaking in the House of Lords on Tuesday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, repeated calls for vaccine equity, saying that the new variant “knows no national boundaries”.

He told peers: “In the light of the new Omicron variant that has dominated the news over the weekend, my colleague Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town urged those of us in rich countries to do better at narrowing inequality of vaccination rates, which are seven per cent in Africa and 70 per cent in Europe.

“We must acknowledge that this virus knows no national boundaries and will spread, mutate, and return to us in the way that we are seeing, so we need a global approach, not simply a bilateral approach.”

Christian Aid has urged the Government to waive vaccine patents and the debt of developing countries to protect more lives against Covid variants. The charity reported that 82 countries were set to miss the internationally agreed adult-vaccination target of 40 per cent by December. The UK had delivered just 11 per cent of promised vaccine doses for developing countries, and only this month had disposed of 600,000 AZ vaccine doses which had expired, the UK Advocacy and Policy Lead at Christian Aid, Jennifer Larbie, said.

“The Omicron Covid variant is the latest reminder that the failure to roll out vaccines globally is costing lives. The best way to prevent the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants of Covid-19 is by ensuring universal access to vaccines in every country. However, a lack of leadership from the UK has created a world of ‘have jabs and have nots’.

“World leaders have an obligation to remove the barriers preventing the rapid roll out of vaccines in the global south. That means urgently waiving patents, which the UK has shamefully opposed, and a comprehensive debt-cancellation package.”

Ms Larbie continued: “With the UK hosting the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting next week, the clock is ticking. The fair global distribution of vaccines isn’t about charity: it is about justice and keeping promises. It is about doing what is right to protect every citizen in our global community.”

Reluctant return. A recent ComRes survey commissioned by Premier of 2016 British Christians suggests that — despite churches being exempt from Covid closures and restrictions — most respondents (64 per cent) would not return to in-person services as regularly as before Covid.

More than half (56 per cent) agreed that “urgent reform” was needed throughout the Church. Among those aged 65 and over, 41 per cent said that the church leadership had failed to offer pastoral support by phone or in person during the pandemic.

Most participants of the survey, conducted between 12 and 25 May, also agreed that their church had struggled to embrace and use technology effectively (63 per cent); 72 per cent said that they would look for spiritual teaching and resources online; and 62 per cent expected online services to continue post-pandemic.

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