Living with Covid-19

Jonathan Taylor

Covid 19 stock image

The UK government has recognised the importance of keeping our places of worship open and accessible. While the focus of congregations and the wider community is on their use as venues for religious and social gatherings, including church services, weddings, baptisms and funerals, it is important to remember that most places of worship are open to everyone during daylight hours.

In a time of social anxiety and emotional need, places of worship offer a quiet place to disengage from the pressures of the world outside and to find solace in prayer, contemplation or meditation.

These benefits are by no means limited to people of faith, and it is more important than ever that churches and other places of worship are kept open and cared for at this time. The pandemic has magnified existing problems and raised some new ones.

Many churches already suffer from painfully small congregations, and their financial pressures have been made worse by a significant loss of income during lockdown.

On top of this there are now Covid-19 related health and safety issues for anyone entering church buildings. This includes not only the clergy and members of the congregation and local community, but also contractors, professional consultants and conservators. For older places of worship the use of hand-sanitisers and disinfectants also poses a threat to historic surfaces.

Funding Sources

The Architectural Heritage Fund is one of several organisations to have published details of the various sources of funding available to UK charities and social enterprises during the Covid-19 pandemic, and its guide is available from the front page of The Heritage Funding Directory.

UK-wide sources include the National Lottery Community Fund which is prioritising projects and organisations supporting communities through Covid-19, including church organisations, with funding of up to £10,000. Another is Hope Beyond, a new grant programme launched by Allchurches Trust to help Christian charities and churches in the UK meet changing needs within their communities arising from the pandemic.

The statutory heritage bodies are generally focusing any additional support on projects they are already funding. In England however, details of a £50 million Heritage Stimulus Fund are on the Historic England website, and it is hoped that some of this will be made available to cathedrals and larger churches for major works through the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.

Transmission Prevention

Covid-19 can spread in two ways: Directly, from close contact with an infected person (within two metres) where respiratory secretions can enter the eyes, mouth or nose.

This risk increases the longer someone has close contact with an infected person. Indirectly, by touching a surface, object or the hand of an infected person that has been contaminated with respiratory secretions and then touching own mouth, nose or eyes.

Guidance on the safe use of places of work and worship during coronavirus varies nationally according to use and application.

However, all guidance documents stress the need for risk assessment and mitigation measures, such as social distancing and the use of face coverings to minimise airborne transmission, and keeping the place clean between uses to minimise transmission from contaminated surfaces.

For example, the Scottish Government’s Coronavirus (Covid-19) Phase 3: guidance for the safe use of places of worship says that ‘Objects and surfaces touched frequently, such as chairs, door handles, light switches, sinks and toilets, should be particular areas of focus for increased cleaning.

All cleaning should be carried out in line with Covid-19: guidance for non-healthcare settings.’ However, as the government's Working safely during coronavirus: Heritage Locations guidance explains: ‘It is especially important that the cleaning and disinfecting processes and regimes for historic buildings and structures are given additional consideration compared to modern buildings.

This is because some historic surfaces are vulnerable to damage through inappropriate cleaning, for instance the surfaces that staff and visitors may come into contact with, such as staircase handrails, may be damaged by certain chemicals (concentrated bleach being one)’.

Historic England has now published guidance on cleaning historic surfaces. This recognises that, to control the spread of Covid-19, disinfecting may be included in routine cleaning in certain circumstances, and it advises that both alcohol-based hand sanitisers and standard liquid disinfectants are liable to cause irreparable damage to historic surfaces, especially if used repeatedly.

It outlines several strategies which should be considered first, and only adopting the use of a harmful chemical if no other options are available.

These might include: Avoidance Avoid contaminating sensitive surfaces where possible by moving them, by restricting access to them, or by covering them – foam protectors for historic handrails for example. Protection Maintaining a protective barrier such as a microcrystalline wax will help to keep any liquid disinfectant away from the original surface.

The use of soap and water for hand washing rather than a hand-sanitisers will help protect a wide range of finishes, including wax coatings, varnishes, oil paints and gold size.

And in some situations it may be possible to encourage visitors to wear disposable gloves to the same effect. Quarantine Many churches are rotating the use of pews or areas of the place of worship to avoid contact with any potentially contaminated surface while the virus is still active.

This is generally taken to be 72 hours, but Historic England’s guidance suggests that it may be longer for some hard materials (120 hours on iron, but just four hours on copper, for example), particularly at cooler temperatures.

A link provided by HE to a paper published in The Lancet states that the virus can remain highly stable at 4°C even after 14 days. Historic England’s paper, Cleaning and Disinfecting Historic Surfaces, is essential reading for everyone responsible for historic buildings, wherever they are in the UK.

Site Management

In England, government guidance on Working safely during coronavirus (Covid-19) has been published for 14 different types of work, and variations apply for the rest of the UK.

In addition to the Heritage Locations guidance, people engaged in conservation work should also be aware of the guidance for Construction and Other Outdoor Work, although the guidance does not alter legal obligations outlined in existing health and safety, employment or equalities legislation.

The guidance recognises that construction workers can be particularly vulnerable during a pandemic as construction often includes activities which require several individuals to work together, and opportunities to work from home may be limited.

By requiring employers to include Covid-19 related risks in a risk assessment and giving advice on how they can be managed, the guidance aims to create Covid-19 secure workplaces.

This must also include a plan of action in case of a Covid-19 outbreak, with a single individual nominated to liaise with the local public health teams.

Importantly, the risk assessment needs to be shared with the work force, and all risk assessments are to be reviewed at regular intervals to ensure they are functioning, or when changes occur in the workplace which might affect risk levels. Failure to compile a risk assessment which includes Covid-19 could represent a breach of health and safety law.

Management Procedures for a Covid-19 Secure Work Environment

  • Before a workplace is reopened, the site must be suitably cleaned (see Historic England’s guidance). No one with Covid-19 symptoms, or those in households or support bubbles with an individual with symptoms, are allowed on to the workplace.
  • Handwashing will be required upon arrival to site. When on the premises, hand washing and surface cleaning is to be increased and additional handwashing facilities should be installed.
  • Social distancing guidelines are to be followed on site (two metres, or one metre with risk-mitigation when this is not possible). Social distancing is required for all business activities including at site entrances, in spaces used for activity breaks and at static work stations. Noise on site should be minimised so voices do not have to be raised.
  • Where the two-metre rule is not possible consideration should be given to whether the task can be redesigned. If not, mitigation actions should be initiated. These can include a further increase in hygiene measures, the erection of screens to separate workers or back-to-back or side-to-side working. If mitigation is not possible the employer should consider whether the activity is essential to the operation of the business.
  • Staggered arrival and departure times should be considered along with additional parking, additional entry points to site, the establishment of one-way movement flows through the site, and a reduction in touch-based security devices.
  • Work ‘bubbles’ should be created to reduce contact. Staff interaction time should be kept to a minimum. Face-to-face meetings should be reduced and social distancing maintained when they occur. Visitors to the workplace should be kept to a minimum. If possible, a record of all visitors to site should be kept.
  • The site and equipment should be cleaned between uses (again following Historic England’s guidance) and all waste removed at the end of a shift. Additional waste facilities should be provided and rubbish collection increased.
  • In the case of an emergency such as an accident or fire, social distancing guidelines do not apply but sanitising measures should be followed afterwards.

Recommended Reading

In addition to the sources mentioned above, the Historic Religious Building Alliance provides regular updates on all these issues in its e-newsletter which is available free of charge.


BCD Special Report On Historic Churches 27th Annual Edition, 2020


This article was prepared by editor Jonathan Taylor with Lisa Oestreicher and Christy Radford.

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