The Government is proposing legislation to help public services respond to the spread of coronavirus and keep the population safe through enforcing social distancing and the closure of premises.

We at the Evangelical Alliance recognise the incredible times that we are living in and the need for emergency legislation both to equip public services in their response and to keep the population safe. The legislation being considered by Parliament this week is broad in scope and contains provisions which would be unthinkable in normal circumstances. The planned law makes provision for the Government to take action in different areas should the need arise. This is why it is a complex and significant piece of legislation even if at first there may not be much immediate use of the law’s powers. 

At the Evangelical Alliance we understand and value the work done by government and recognise the need for extraordinary measures for extraordinary times. Along with that, however, we think that it is necessary for the legislation to be matched with safeguards and scrutiny to ensure that it is not misused and there is protection against unintended consequences. 

The Evangelical Alliance has briefed MPs on our support for the overall aims of the legislation and our concerns about the ramifications of some aspects of the proposed law. In addition to the broad concern about scrutiny and safeguards we have raised particular concerns about services that offer life-sustaining support to people – for example drug recovery groups and homeless shelters – that might be forced to close. We have also encouraged the Government to facilitate the use of volunteers who have safeguarding checks to be easily redeployed to areas and services suffering from staff shortages or increased demand.

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One significant area where the Government’s power is expanded is the new power to enforce the closure of places of worship and enforce sanctions should people attend these (and many other) places. Churches across the UK heeded government advice this past weekend and did not meet. The Evangelical Alliance has provided advice for churches and that includes not meeting. We do not consider it an infringement on religious freedom to be asked to behave responsibly in this context. However, the legislation does restrict the freedom of assembly, which has broad human rights implications and therefore needs to be handled with great care.

The rapidly changing context that this bill is seeking to legislate in is highly complex and challenging. The Government has amended its original two-year sunset clause (when the new law would expire) to requiring renewal every six months. It is the ability for people to question, critique and consult that is essential for a functioning democracy even in these unprecedented times.

Across the UK, churches, charities and individuals are already responding with incredible compassion in their communities. We want to encourage churches to support their congregations and be a witness to their neighbours. We want the light of Christ to shine through our words and actions. This means that churches take seriously their responsibilities at this time, not meeting because this would be reckless, but also seeking to continue services and support that are essential for their communities. 

At the Evangelical Alliance we want to help churches and communities in this time of crisis. We will share stories of love in action and of the good news being shared. We will also continue to hold our government to account and ensure churches and charities are able to provide the essential support and services communities need. 

It is necessary for the legislation to be matched with safeguards and scrutiny to ensure that it is not misused.