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Last month, the UK Government set out its three-step Covid-19 recovery plan to end lockdown. Whilst churches across the country currently remain closed, a careful and safe reopening of places of worship is now finally on the horizon. The Government recently announced that places of worship would be able to reopen for individual prayer from 15 June. The wider reopening of churches is not expected until Stage 3 of the Government’s recovery plan, currently scheduled to be 4 July (at the earliest). In light of the recent developments, many church leaders will be thinking about how churches can reopen safely.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, churches have an obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees so far as is reasonably practicable. Churches also have a similar obligation under the 1974 Act to ensure the health and safety of members of the public who attend their properties or are affected by their activities. This obligation will extend to doing all that is reasonably practicable to ensure those individuals do not contract Covid-19 because of their interaction with the church or its facilities.
To consider what measures are reasonably practicable, churches should complete a Covid-19 risk assessment covering their reopening and all planned activities. On completion of the assessment, churches should implement suitable and sufficient measures to mitigate the risks identified. These measures could include:
- Where the church is to be used for live streaming, churches could implement rotas for minsters/leaders to reduce the number of people in the building at any one time.
- Churches could implement increased handwashing and ensure the facilities are subject to an enhanced cleaning regime.
- Churches may put measures in place to ensure social distancing can be practiced and to stop the use of shared items, such as hymn books and bibles.
The Government has set up the new Places of Worship Taskforce to develop a strategy to safely reopen churches and other places of worship. We expect further guidance on how places of worship can reopen safely to be published soon by the Taskforce and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Complying with such guidance is typically a strong indicator that an organisation is complying with its health and safety obligations.
Where buildings, or parts of buildings, have been closed for some time, churches should review all relevant risk assessments to identify any changes or additional risks that may have arisen during lockdown. Churches may also wish to undertake a thorough health and safety check before buildings are reopened; churches should also ensure the church building is cleaned thoroughly and perform general maintenance tasks regularly, such as testing fire alarm systems, running taps and flushing toilets.
In particular, churches should be aware of the possibility of Legionella. Church buildings may have been left unoccupied (or minimally occupied) during the lockdown period, meaning that there may be an increased risk of Legionella growth in water systems. Churches should, therefore, review their water hygiene risk assessments for all water systems.
Vulnerable and shielded individuals
Particular care and thought should be given to vulnerable and shielded individuals. The use of live streaming and virtual meetings will be ongoing for some time and will likely continue after restrictions are lifted. Churches may wish to bear in mind how inclusive these methods of communication are. Often it will be the most vulnerable who do not have access to live streaming and virtual meetings, so it may well be worth thinking about ways to make sure that these people feel included in and have a method of accessing the church community.
Monday 1 June saw some children returning to school for the first time since March.
Places of worship (including church halls) are also able to open for early years childcare if provided by a person registered on the Early Years Register under Part 3 of the Childcare Act 2006. With this in mind, churches will need to consider how they make this return as safe as possible.
Government guidance sets out practical steps that childcare and educational settings should follow when they reopen and acknowledges the difficulties of ensuring social distancing between young children. Some of the main points that emerge from the guidance are as follows:
- Enhanced cleaning of settings: for example, make sure frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, are cleaned several times a day.
- Encouraging frequent handwashing and good respiratory hygiene practices (e.g. “catch it, bin it, kill it”).
- Encouraging physical distance: for example, by staggering mealtimes and arranging classrooms to allow for distancing between children.
- Minimising contact and mixing by keeping children in the same small groups.
- Reducing face-to-face contact with and between parents and carers.
The guidance does not recommend the wearing of face masks, except in relation to children whose care already involves the use of PPE (due to intimate care needs) and where a child becomes unwell with symptoms of coronavirus and the supervising adult cannot maintain a distance of two metres from the child.
Currently, the Government is still recommending that, wherever possible, people should continue to work from home. For employees who have already or will soon physically return to the workplace, churches will need to take steps to identify and minimise risk to their employees. Our Regulatory e-briefing sets out more detail on this topic (available to read here), but the key measures include:
- Keeping employees at least two metres away from each other.
- Staggering break times, lunchtimes and start and finish times to avoid large crowds of people.
- Asking employees how they travel to and from work and considering how to reduce the number of employees using public transport to get to work.
- Putting employees into groups and advising them not to mix with people from other groups.
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