The Government has announced measures aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus. How can we respond as the church, how can we help people stay healthy, and how can we be a witness for Jesus at this time?

UPDATED 30 March 2020 – this page will be updated to reflect the most recent guidance.

On Monday, 23 March 2020 the UK Government announced three new measures to tackle the spread of coronavirus:

  1. People are required to stay at home except for very limited purposes
  2. All non-essential shops and community spaces are to close
  3. Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public 

The exceptions to staying at home are very limited: they include essential work, shopping for food and essentials, medical needs, and one form of exercise each day either alone or with members of your household. 

You should not be in close contact with anyone outside of your household. If you have to travel or go shopping you should maintain at least two metres distance from other people.

These measures have been taken because the UK has continued to see an escalation in the number of cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) and the trend in countries such as Italy and Spain show that even with significant lockdown of a country the number of cases will rise significantly over coming weeks. 

Government guidance

Advice for people demonstrating symptoms of coronavirus, primarily a high fever and a new and persistent cough, remains the same. You are to self-isolate for seven days if living alone, and if living with other people you and those you live with are to self-isolate for 14 days. Self-isolation means no contact with anyone outside the house, and not leaving your house or garden even if you are not in contact with other people. Where at all possible it is encouraged that other people collect any shopping and this is left outside the property.

The implication of the Government’s advice is that many workplaces are changing how they operate. Many people will either not be able to work or will have to work from home. The Government has announced support for employees who are furloughed from their employment. 

The latest announcement from the Government includes places of worship in the list of venues that are required to close to the public. Guidance from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government now confirms that they cannot remain open for private prayer. 

The Government has also issued travel advice against all non-essential travel and advised Britons abroad to return to the UK. This is particularly important because other countries are imposing entry and exit restrictions, and the reduction in flights means that returning to the UK may be difficult.

Government and NHS links

Advice for church gatherings

From Sunday, 22 March, many churches across the UK have moved their services online, and church activities such as Alpha and small groups are following suit. Following the latest government measures this is now be required. 

For the health of our congregations, our communities and our country, churches must not meet physically. This affects not only Sunday services but all gatherings, regardless of their size. This is not only following good advice to limit the spread of coronavirus, but is now against the law. 

There are a number of ways churches can operate online and care will be required to ensure they do not compromise the spirit and letter of the Government’s measures. The safest option is for contributors to either record content or broadcast live from their own houses. If filming or streaming content from your church can be done simply, this would also be an acceptable approach. Government guidance says:

A minister of religion or worship leader may leave their home to travel to their place of worship. A place of worship may broadcast an act of worship, whether over the internet or otherwise.” 

The government have clarified to the Evangelical Alliance that a minister of religion’ can include lay leaders, and volunteer camera operators and technicians can be included assuming they maintain appropriate social distance. The number of people involved should be kept to an absolute minimum and if travel and bringing people together can be avoided this is preferable.

With churches not meeting physically on Sundays, how can you still support one another and witness to your community?

A group of church communications professionals have put together resources to help churches with their activities now they are not meeting physically together – this regularly updated document is available here.

In the light of the current guidance, pastoral visits to people in self-isolation should not take place in person, and phone and video calls should be used where possible. While not explicitly mentioned pastoral visits to those who are not self-isolating should be avoided as this is likely to be considered non-essential contact beyond your household. Make use of phone and video calls to provide support for your congregation, and possibly a letter through the door on your daily walk. 

As noted above, guidance from the Government is now clear that church buildings cannot remain open for private prayer. The only further exception is for the continuation of essential services such as food banks or homeless shelters.

Encouraging a Christian witness in a time of fear

The current measures are being taken to limit the spread of the virus, and it is anticipated the UK will see rates of infection similar to those in Spain and Italy over the coming weeks. 

With most people working from home, not travelling, and looking after children who no longer have school, our lives have already changed swiftly beyond much recognition. It is also likely that health services will be prioritising urgent need over routine activities. We have seen shortages of food and essential products in supermarkets, and many concerned for how they will cope if forced to isolate for long periods of time.

The fatality rate for the disease so far is around two or three per cent, with a greater risk for the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. While for many this will be a minor illness, it is worth knowing the more significant risks for those around us in our family, neighbourhoods and churches.

Our lives are already changing dramatically and we should consider how we will engage, not just practically to continue our work or church activities, but also how we continue to make Jesus known in a society where fear comes to the fore. Read our comment on how we can be a reassuring presence in a time of fear.