The Prime Minister has confirmed that changes to coronavirus regulations will go ahead on 17 May and England will edge further out of restrictions. Similar steps are being taken across the UK as infection levels decline and vaccinations increase.

The changes, the third phase in the Government’s four-step roadmap out of lockdown, will enable hospitality venues to serve customers inside and permit hotels and all remaining holiday accommodation to open. Among other changes, two households, or up to six people, will be permitted to meet indoors, and groups of up to 30 will be allowed to meet outside. Limited tourist foreign travel will be possible, although a traffic light system discourages travel to all but a very small list of countries or territories, most of which are not popular destinations for UK travellers. 

For churches in England, these changes will have an impact on how certain activities are provided but do not represent significant shifts. Many activities can now take place in person as long as necessary precautions are taken. While there continues to be restrictions, many of these are government guidelines and are not in the regulations, so the Evangelical Alliance is pressing for clarity as to when these will be lifted. 


What can churches do?

Churches have been permitted to meet throughout the most recent lockdown, and many of the key aspects of guidance for safe meeting remain the same. Churches should continue to encourage social distancing, and singing should be limited to a small number of performers. Face masks are required for all attending who are over 11 years old. 

Supervised children’s activities, which includes Sunday school groups, have been allowed since 12 April, and this means any number of young people can be in groups led by staff and volunteers. Parents cannot stay in these groups unless they are involved in leading the activities. There is a separate allowance for parent and child groups, which from 17 May allows up to 30 people aged five years old and over to gather together and interact – this does not include anyone leading the group. These activities can take place indoors or outside, and the latter is one of the few exceptions that permit slightly larger groups to interact.

From 17 May the rules on indoor mixing permits groups of up to six people or two households to be indoors together or interact at a permitted gathering (such as a church service). This provides some scope for church activities to take place indoors; for example, small prayer, discipleship or Bible study groups could meet. If the meeting takes place in a church building, or buildings specifically hired for that purpose (but not a private dwelling), then there can be multiple groups of six as long as they do not mix. Likewise, before and after church services interaction can take place within these limits but people should not mix and match between groups of six. The most recent guidance suggests that while social distancing is still encouraged it is not necessary to do so when seeing family and friends, and as has received much coverage in the media, you may hug them if you wish.

What restrictions remain?

The primary restrictions that remain on church activities fall into two categories: those covered by regulations and therefore part of the law, and recommended guidance, failure to follow which could jeopardise risk assessments and insurance liability. 

The Prime Minister has indicated that following 21 June, the fourth and final step in the roadmap, the Government intends to lift all remaining legal restrictions. The principal effect of this for churches will be to remove the restrictions on who can interact at church services and other activities. This will make a huge difference and potentially enable all activities to take place. The other area that is regulated directly by the law is the requirement to wear face masks, and it is unclear whether this will be lifted along with other measures in June or will be maintained for longer. 

The areas covered by guidance that have a significant effect on churches include social distancing and singing. The impression from the most recent government comments suggests that social distancing guidance could be fully lifted from next month. We hope that restrictions on singing indoors are also brought to an end. 

The Evangelical Alliance continues to press the Government to take sensible steps to enable churches to operate in a way that is safe but doesn’t unduly restrict their activities. We have called for guidance for congregational singing to be changed in line with the return of crowds for sporting events and music concerts. We have also expressed concern at the prospect that certification of infection or vaccine status could be used for churches and other places of worship.