CONGREGATIONAL singing is at last to resume in churches, from 19 July, when almost all the current Covid restrictions across England are to be lifted.
On Monday night, the Prime Minister announced that he intended to continue with the fourth and final stage of the Government’s roadmap to unlocking the country, — delayed, apart from the easing of restrictions on weddings (News, 14 June), for four weeks since 21 June owing to concern over the Delta variant.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: “We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, we must ask ourselves: when will we be able to return to normal?”
UK hospital admissions continue to rise each day, and daily cases could reach 50,000 by 19 July, but the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, told the press conference that recent modelling had suggested that the NHS would be able to cope. “We will reach that peak before we get to the point where we have the kind of pressures we saw in January of this year. But inevitably, with all models you have to say that there’s some degree of uncertainty.”
If the plan is confirmed after a final data review next week, England will become the most unrestricted country in Europe. Limits on gatherings will be scrapped, and mask-wearing, like current guidance on social distancing and hugging friends and relatives, is to become a matter of personal choice.
Although people will be urged strongly to wear masks in crowded places and on public transport, this will no longer be a mandatory requirement in any place, including places of worship, shops, and schools. Businesses may decide to continue to require mask-wearing on their premises, however.
The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, told the House of Commons on Monday afternoon: “There will no limits on the number of people who can attend life events such as weddings and funerals, and there will be no restrictions on communal worship or singing.” All venues, including nightclubs, will reopen, and all hospitality restrictions, including table-only service, are to be scrapped.
The remaining restrictions will be only the requirement to isolate after receiving a positive Covid-19 test; proof of vaccination or a negative test for international travel; and mandatory social distancing in airports and ports. People who have been double-vaccinated are likely to free from quarantine rules on their return from amber-list countries, though the start date for this change has not yet been announced.
The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was among the critics of plans to scrap the “base” restrictions of mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing in venues and crowded places.
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, who recently announced his retirement, said: “It will be a pity if mask-wearing becomes a skirmish in the culture wars. Better would be to follow the science. So, if (as Chris Whitty said) we wear our masks for other people, not for ourselves, then I’m wearing mine in public.”
More than 79 million vaccine doses have been administered in the UK. Every adult has been offered at least one dose and 64 per cent of the adult population have received two doses.
Responding to the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said that the success of the vaccination programme had been “an answer to prayer, but, while it has transformed the outlook of the pandemic, it has not eliminated all risk. So it is right, as the Prime Minister has said, that we all must exercise personal responsibility and carefully manage the risks from Covid-19. . .
“Over the past 18 months, we have mourned the tens of thousands who have died from Covid-19. We have also all made sacrifices and seen previously unimaginable changes to our way of life as we sought to protect one another and especially those who are most vulnerable.
“In churches, that has meant unprecedented restrictions on the way we practise our faith itself, affecting our ability to meet together, to sing together and to celebrate the sacraments together, all of which are at the heart of our worship. We have also seen particular restrictions on the way we marked major events in our lives through baptisms, weddings, and funerals; sadly, many were denied the basic comforts of sharing moments of joy and pain with others.”
The Recovery Group was awaiting new guidance from the Government on places of worship before it revised its own, Bishop Mullally concluded. This is likely to include advice on social distancing, masks, and the resumption of communion in both kinds.
In the House of Lords on Tuesday, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, asked whether specific guidance would be published on communal singing. He said: “Given the move from rule and regulation to guidance and good sense, does the Government intend to issue any guidance specific to places of worship and in relation to singing in communal settings such as community choirs, other choral groups, and indeed in schools, or is that to be down to the good sense of those responsible in such settings?”
The Vicar of Ault Hucknall and Scarcliffe in Derbyshire, the Revd Judy Henderson-Smith, was among the callers on Tuesday to the Radio 4 programme You and Yours, which asked whether the public was ready for the lifting of restrictions on 19 July. Ms Henderson Smith said that, while she felt ready as an individual, she was anxious about the possible resumption of congregational singing and the common communion cup in churches, particularly in rural churches such as her own, which had small congregations mostly of retirement age. This was despite her understanding that most had received two doses of the vaccine.
“I will be interested to see if the congregation want to go back to taking communion [in both kinds] or just the bread,” she said, which had, for more than a year now, been distributed using hand sanitiser, gloves, and face masks. “Going back to the previous way of doing things . . . is a little bit worrying for me, as I feel responsible for my congregation.”