COVID-19: Places of worship

Below we provide guidance on COVID-19 restrictions in relation to places of worship. We will be updating this page as and when new guidance becomes available.

Advice if you are employed by a place of worship

An employer has a statutory duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. To do so, an employer must carry out a risk assessment, in line with the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidance. Note that HSE guidance applies in Great Britain, but Northern Ireland has a separate health and safety body.

In brief:

  • All employers with five or more employees must undertake a specific COVID-19 risk assessment.
  • Risk assessments must be shared with all staff and their representatives before any individual can be required to return to work.
  • Risk assessments must be suitably specific for music, and take account of risks arising from particular circumstances eg for choirs and singing, use of the organ, etc. Music staff must be involved in preparing these risk assessments.
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides protections for individuals raising or acting on health and safety concerns. The ISM will seek to enforce these provisions on behalf of members.


    No individual musician, whatever their relationship with a place of worship, should be penalised or suffer any detriment for raising or acting on health and safety concerns. This means that your employer must identify and assess the risk – specifically deciding how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how serious it could be; put in place measures to control the risk; record the findings and review the control making any changes if necessary.

    Your employer must consult with you, your elected representatives, or trade unions on health and safety matters.

    Specifically, they should consult you on how the risk assessment has been or will be carried out, the outcome, and what measures will be put in place to prevent the risk of infection during your work.

    Ask your employer to tell you what steps have been taken to comply with Health and Safety legislation and the most recent guidance issued by the government on working safely during Coronavirus.

    You should also ask your employer:

  • whether they have carried out a health and safety check on the premises
  • what cleaning and hygiene arrangements have been planned
  • what communications have been made to worshippers and others attending the place of worship
  • when these measures will be put in place

    If your employer has not taken any or insufficient steps, you should notify your concerns and their shortcoming in the employer’s protection arrangements. Employees and, in some cases, workers have the right not to be dismissed or treated detrimentally where they raise health and safety concerns.

    If you or your colleagues are ISM members and have concerns or questions about this guidance, please contact our legal team at [email protected].
  • England

    Updated 30 September 2020

    The government have published guidance on the safe use of places of worship during the pandemic. This was updated on 24 September following restrictions brought in my by the government on 22 September.

    The government acknowledges the importance of communal worship to communities, but also notes that their communal nature means they are ‘particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus.’

    If you live in an area that is experiencing a local COVID-19 outbreak and where local restrictions have been imposed, different guidance and legislation will apply.

    Please consult the local restrictions guidance to see if any restrictions are in place in your area. There are some exemptions from the ‘rule of six’ for places of worship, but the guidance states that, ‘Whilst engaging in an activity in the place of worship or surrounding grounds, all parties should adhere to social distancing guidelines at all times, even within a group of 6.’

    Specific advice on music and worship

    The government guidance on music making as part of worship and religious ceremonies states that:

  • There are no limits on the number of professional performers and supervised under 18s performing during worship and rehearsals (both indoors and outdoors).
  • In all other cases, where there will be more than 6 adult performers, each group of 6 performers should ensure they do not mix and that they observe social distancing.
  • Singing in these groups should be limited to a small set group of people and should not include audience participation. Where music plays a big part in worship, and recordings are available, the government suggests you consider using these as an alternative to live singing.
  • Please refer to the associated guidance for the performing arts. The parts of this guidance which are particularly salient include the recommendations for physical distancing and hygiene.
  • Congregations are still at this time not permitted to sing as part of worship.
  • Instruments: Organs can be played for services, practice and general maintenance, but should be appropriately cleaned after use. Any other instrument played during worship should be cleaned thoroughly before and after use.
  • Congregations should not play music above a volume that makes talking difficult. Spoken responses during worship should not be in a raised voice.
  • Sheet music: The guidance also sets out advice on reducing the use of shared items, including printed material. Although sheet music is not mentioned explicitly, under the spirit of this advice, musicians should use their own music where at all possible, or else follow the guidance on quarantining re-used material.
  • Capacity guidance

    For certain events, like weddings, funerals and life cycle celebrations (any ceremony that is self-contained rather than general worship) there is a capacity limit. From 28 September, weddings must have no more than 15 people. For funerals the limit is 30 Life cycle events will no longer be exempt from wider rules around gatherings in groups larger than 6.

    For general communal worship, capacity should be decided by the venue management on basis of their risk assessment.

    Large receptions or parties should not take place after life cycle events. Small wedding receptions (up to 15 people at a sit-down dinner) can now take place.

    Social distancing and face covering guidance


    Social distancing guidelines should be adhered to. This means keeping a distance of 2 metres between households, or 1 metre with other actions taken to reduce the risk of transmission.

    Be aware the place of worship should consider how they may alter services to reduce the risk of transmission, with measures like changing seating, staggering arrival times and directing the flow of people in the venue.

    Face coverings (including masks) are required by law to be worn in places of worship. Other measures such as social distancing, minimising time spent in contact, and increasing hand and surface washing should be maintained.

    Test and trace

    Places of worship have been asked to help facilitate the test and trace process by collecting contact details of all those in attendance at a place of worship. Data protection law means this is a voluntary process and consents should be asked for. If data is collected, it should be destroyed after 21 days. Places of Worship should also display official NHS QR code posters so that those with the app can scan in if they choose.

    Northern Ireland

    Updated 30 September 2020

    Religious services in places of worship, indoor marriage and civil partnerships have all now resumed. Numbers attending indoor ceremonies and post-ceremony celebrations will be determined by the venue on a risk assessed basis, taking account of the individual circumstances of each venue and adhering to all relevant public health advice and industry guidance. Singing is currently allowed in Northern Ireland, although the higher risk of transmission is acknowledged, and it is suggested this may be with socially distanced choirs at low volumes.

    Advice from the executive on the reopening of places of worship as written to faith leaders in the country is available in this letter.

    Scotland

    Updated 30 September 2020

    Places of worship in Scotland are now open for a wide range of forms of worship, including congregational services, communal prayer, and religious life event ceremonies, such as baptisms, christenings, and coming-of-age ceremonies.

    Funeral services and marriage ceremonies are subject to their own set of regulations. For weddings, it is advised that guest numbers 'should ideally be kept to a minimum as far as possible' with a suggestion of 20 as a maximum, venue permitting, which includes musicians. Funerals may have up to 20. In both cases social distancing restrictions apply.

    Each place of worship should make their own judgement of if and how to open safely. Decisions on capacity and measures in place will be made by those who run the place of worship where you are working, in line with the range of measures outlined in the full guidance, such as social distancing, hand sanitisation and aiding contact tracing. For general communal worship, the maximum able to attend, even in the largest places of worship, is 50 people.

    Those attending places of worship should be aware that face coverings must be worn.

    The advice makes it clear that places of worship should be considering their responsibilities as employers. You can read more about guidance on returning to work to see measures employers should have in place. If you are an ISM member and have concerns over your work in this setting, please contact our legal team.

    Congregational singing and wind and brass instruments


    The advice states: ‘Congregational singing, both indoors and outdoors, should continue to be avoided at this time. Scientific studies indicate that it is the cumulative aerosol transmission from both those performing in and attending events that involve singing and the playing of wind and brass instruments, that is likely to create risk.’

    However there are some exceptions to this rule under the performing arts guidelines with different rules applying for professionals and non-professionals.

    Where singing or chanting is essential to a specific act of worship, plexi-glass may be used. Other instruments, such as organs, may be played.

    Wales

    Updated 22 October 2020

    During the period of the 'fire-break' in Wales (from 6pm on Friday 23 October to Monday 9 November), places of worship will be closed to the public except for weddings and civil partnerships. Receptions for weddings and civil partnerships are prohibited.

    Please contact our legal team on [email protected] if you have any problems arising from the fire-break.

    The Welsh government have published guidance on reopening places of worship.

    If you are an ISM member, you can contact our legal team on [email protected] with any concerns or questions. Please include any relevant documents pertaining to your enquiry.