Rob Smith provides another update on the government’s new ‘rule of six’ and how this affects weddings and funerals.
Once again, the increase in recorded cases of Covid-19 has resulted in the government imposing restrictions upon freedoms which we have always taken for granted.
Fortunately, since the decision in July to allow the reopening of churches, the restrictions imposed upon places of worship, whilst significant, have been considerably less draconian than in other areas of society.
The difficulty for everyone, but most importantly for church leaders, is keeping up to date with the changes as they happen. The devolved nature of the legislation and guidance makes it doubly difficult for those trying to advise churches, as a ‘one size fits all’ approach simply fails to deal with the differences that exist in each part of the United Kingdom.
The latest round of changes to the Regulations were announced yesterday evening, with the heart-breaking news for young couples whose marriages are taking place after 27 September, that they will be restricted to a maximum of 15 guests. Whilst this is an improvement on the blanket ban on marriages that was imposed on couples when the first restrictions were announced, it is nevertheless a huge disappointment.
There has been no change to the number of people able to attend funerals, with the cap remaining at 30. Why there is a distinction between weddings and funerals is unclear, but Matt Hancock no doubt has his reasons.
What has been clarified in the past week is the effect of the ‘rule of six’ on places of worship and gatherings in private homes. The new rules came into effect on 14 September, but the guidance on the Government website was only updated on 17 September, leaving a three-day window for folk lore to take the place of actual law.
When the ‘rule of 6’ was first announced it was feared its effect on churches would be quite restrictive. To allay everyone’s fears, on 17 September an email was released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government which stated, “It is important to note the rule of six does not impact significantly on communal worship. There can be more than six people undertaking communal worship, prayer or study, or informal support groups, provided that people do not mingle outside of a group of six people.”
With such an assurance from the relevant department we might be forgiven for believing that the ‘rule of six’ concept suggests that we can all meet in church as we ordinarily might, providing we remain in our little socially distanced group. But what does it mean in a practical sense?
The ‘rule of six’ requires us to remain socially distanced in our distinct group. Our group of six is expected to remain socially distanced from the next group of six, which might sound remarkably as though we now have a group of 12, but here comes the catch. This is where your mingler comes in. Of course the legislation does not go so far as to explain what constitutes a mingler, but it appears to be that anyone from outside your group of six who so much as dares to say “hello” will be guilty of a criminal offence. Taken to extremes, the vicar or pastor who stands at the door of his church welcoming his flock will be a mingler; he will be interacting with all of these little groups of six, and even if he maintains a two metre distance he may be fined for doing so.
So here we go again. Church, the place where all of us habitual minglers who are commanded to look to the interests of others, and carry one another’s burdens, will be prevented from doing so, because enquiring into the welfare of someone outside your group of six can attract criminal sanctions. So much for not impacting significantly on communal worship!
What about prayer groups?
On a slightly more cheery note, when the rule of six was announced it appeared prayer groups would be restricted to six persons, even in a church. Fortunately, this was an incorrect interpretation, and in response to a request for clarification the Government said:
“Q. Are prayer groups/ study groups for adults meeting in Places of Worship capped at six?
- No, there can be multiple groups of six people doing the same activity provided that these groups do not mingle.
- Faith groups can organise prayer and study groups, both at a fixed Place of Worship and at a hired venue that is Covid-19 Secure venue.
- If the group is hiring a venue, they must undertake a rigorous risk assessment for the event alongside the private owner or relevant local authority, and ensure that safeguards are in place to allow for strict social distancing between attendees.
- All attendees should provide contact details for the purposes of NHS Test and Trace.”
Nevertheless, even at the prayer meeting any untoward mingling will breach the letter of the law.
Gathering for worship in a public place
What was quite surprising was the Government’s stance on whether people could gather in a group of more than six in order to engage in public worship in a public place. Apparently, this is entirely lawful as “it is the act of worship that is exempt from the law against groups of more than six gathering, rather than the place of worship. This means that a faith group can host a prayer service or communal worship in an outdoor public space, with the same restrictions as a fixed place of worship.” The group meeting in this way would however be expected to produce a risk assessment and go through the usual protocols expected for a church service under the regulations.
What about house groups?
One question that remains the subject of some debate is whether it is ok for six adults (socially distanced of course) to meet as a house group whilst the children are asleep in bed.
Under section 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No.2) (England) Regulations 2020, the parent Act that underpins all of the guidance, it says:
“For the purposes of this regulation—
(a) there is a gathering when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other.”
It is certainly arguable that children who are fast asleep in bed are unlikely to engage in social interaction or any other activity, but when clarification was sought, the response from Government was:
“The law is clear. If there is any risk that a group of more than six will mix (including young children) then this must not happen.”
Much of the confusion probably stems from the differing rules across the UK. For example, under its rule of six, Wales expects all six people to belong to the same extended household group but excludes children under 11 from the total; Scotland allows six people from two households to meet together, yet children under the age of 12 who are part of the two households meeting will not count towards the limit of six; and in Northern Ireland the number of people who can meet indoors was reduced to six last month, although it still allows up to 15 to meet outdoors.
Are there any exceptions?
One notable and welcome exception to the ‘rule of six’ relates to out of school activities for children and youth. Although the exception does not extend to private home, it is still possible to arrange youth groups through church, but it is recommended that groups do not exceed 15 in number and should take place in Covid-19 secure premises (where the usual risk assessment has been completed), or outdoors.
The difficulties of navigating the Regulations are quite apparent and the Christian Legal Centre is doing its best to keep abreast of developments. If you or your church have questions about how the Regulations affect your ability to worship, then please get in touch and we will do our best to give you some clarity.