Looking after church buildings during the Coronavirus pandemic

Updated 18 May 2020
Dalmeny Kirk

**Updated with information about safety inspections, controlling the risk of Legionella, and playing the organ**

Answers to frequently asked questions about caring for church buildings and grounds during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

We have received a large number of enquires asking for advice on how to look after your church buildings when they are closed during the coronavirus pandemic. The Scottish Government has now passed legislation which clearly describes what activities are allowed to continue within places of worship. Although the regulations do not explicitly say that the inspection or checking of church buildings is allowed, the Scottish Government has advised the Church of Scotland that building visits and inspections can take place if it is essential for the maintenance of that building.

The Church of Scotland Insurance Service (COSIC) has issued specific advice relating to the insurance providers (AVIVA) requirements for Financial Boards to maintain their church buildings, contents and equipment in a satisfactory state of repair. In addition, AVIVA have produced detailed guidance for those congregations who are members of the Church of Scotland Insurance Scheme (the Scheme) outlining the steps which should be taken before church buildings are closed. AVIVA have confirmed that a church building would not be classed as unoccupied until after 90 days have passed since the closure of that building if visits can be made to inspect the property. It is important to note that this condition also extends to Manses.

The following frequently asked questions will hopefully help you organise and implement a suitable and safe inspection strategy for your church buildings whilst they are closed as a result of coronavirus. It is important that each Financial Board takes a risk-based approach to ensure that their church buildings are protected whilst they are not being used, or if they are being used to support the wider community during the Coronavirus pandemic. Some Financial Boards may decide that visits and inspection to their buildings are not necessary, as there may be other ways to ensure that your buildings are being maintained to a satisfactory condition whilst they are closed. If you can’t find the answer to your questions below, please contact COSIC (enquiries@cosic.co.uk) or the Church of Scotland General Trustees (gentrustees@churchofscotland.org.uk) for further information.

Additional information can be found on the COSIC website and the Church of Scotland website. It is very important that all Financial Boards who are members of the Scheme check both the COSIC and Church of Scotland websites regularly for updates.

1. Why should we inspect our church buildings when they are closed due to Coronavirus?

It is important that Financial Boards take reasonable steps to ensure that their buildings are maintained in a satisfactory state of repair and it is likely that some element of inspection will be identified as an appropriate method of managing the property now that they may no longer be in use. However, each congregation is different, and it is important that each Financial Board considers the risks to their buildings when they are closed. Inspecting your buildings will also allow Financial Boards to identify any problems quickly and ensue that any emergency repair work is undertaken without excessive delay.

2. How often should we visit our church buildings to inspect them?

Ideally and wherever possible, arrangements should be put in place for someone to visit and inspect your church buildings at least once every 14 days. However, if any church building is located in a high risk area, then the Financial Board may decide that their buildings should be inspected more frequently such as every seven days. Financial Boards should take a risked-based approach when deciding how often their buildings should be visited and inspected.

The Financial Board must ensure that any church buildings closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic are only visited for the purpose of checking that their buildings remain in good order. No other activity such as general administration or general maintenance is allowed unless it is to attend to an emergency repair or maintain the church grounds (see question 12).

3. Who should inspect the church buildings that we are responsible for?

The Financial Board is responsible for ensuring that suitable and sufficient arrangements are in place for the inspection of their church buildings. In some cases, one person may volunteer to take responsibility for visiting the church buildings each week, or the Financial Board may wish to consider implementing a rota or schedule so that the visits are shared amongst several members of the congregation.

Ideally, the best person to inspect your church buildings will be someone who knows the layout of your buildings well and understands the services and systems that have been installed. For example, they should know how to work the alarm system and the fire detection system if these have been installed.

Volunteers who agree to visit and inspect your church buildings should be able to do so without the need for transport. However we do recognise that for some rural congregations this would be impossible. Volunteers should be encouraged to include their visit and inspection of the church buildings as part of their 1 hour permitted exercise per day.

Please note, Church of Scotland Ministers and worship leaders are permitted under The Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 to visit their place of worship. The Financial Board therefore may wish to consider asking their Minister to visit and inspect their church buildings depending on individual congregational circumstances.

4. Can one person visit the church and inspect the building or should two people go?

Ideally, we would recommend that for health and safety reasons two people inspect your church buildings at the same time. However, we know that in some congregations that this would be difficult. If two people are able to visit your church buildings together, then it is important that social distancing rules and good hygiene practices are followed at all times unless they are from the same household (please see question 5 below). If only one person is able to visit your church buildings, then it is important that the Financial Board looks at the potential risks of that person coming to harm. The Financial Board may wish to ask the volunteer to text or phone a named person when they are entering and leaving the church building and to only visit during the daytime.

Under no circumstances should more than two people be visiting and inspecting church buildings at any one time.

5. What precautions should we be taking when we inspect our church buildings?

Nobody who is in the high-risk category (over 70 years old) or those with underlying health conditions or those who are social shielding can visit and inspect church buildings. Volunteers who are, or who are living with someone who is currently unwell with symptoms of Coronavirus or a serious underlying health condition, must not visit and inspect church buildings.

If two people are visiting and inspecting church buildings at the same time, then it is important that social distancing is observed (you should maintain a 2m distance between each person) alongside good hygiene practices unless they are from the same household. It is important to remember that the police and other officials now have the ability to fine and/or prosecute anyone who does not demonstrate social distancing whilst in a place of work.

It is important that all hand surfaces that have been touched during the visit and inspection are cleaned and disinfected before leaving the building.

6. My buildings remain open to support the local community; do I still need to inspect them?

Yes. If your church buildings remain open then it should be easier to visit and inspect your building. However, it is very important that the precautions outlined in question five above are followed.

7. What areas of the church buildings should we be inspecting?

The main reason for visiting and inspecting your church building is to ensure that they remain secure, in a reasonable condition, and to identify any problems quickly. AVIVA has suggested that the visit and inspection of church buildings should focus on:

  • Making sure that the perimeter security fences and lighting are in good condition and operational
  • Ensuring that all physical security and locking devices are working and in place
  • Ensuring that all protection and detection systems are working
  • Checking that there are no burst pipes, leaking fluids, or spills and, if so, taking steps to prevent any further leaking and arrange for these areas to be cleaned/fixed as appropriate
  • Checking that any unsafe conditions are identified and remedied

8. Should we be keeping a record of who visits and inspects our church buildings?

Yes. The Financial Board should keep a record of who visited their church buildings, when they visited and what they inspected. Details of any actions that were taken during the visit should also be recorded.

9. Should I still carry out a weekly test of the fire alarm system?

If you have a fire alarm system installed then it is important that you keep up to date, if possible, with any routine testing of the system. Fire extinguishers and emergency lighting should also be checked during the visit and inspection.

10. We have an ongoing problem with water ingress into our church building; can we visit the church to make sure that it is still being contained?

Yes. If you have ongoing problems with the structure of your church buildings and water is entering then it is important that this is monitored until a repair can be carried out. You may have to visit and inspect the building more than once a week depending on the severity of the damage. It is important that you document each time that you visit the church building and that all reasonable precautions are taken to ensure the health and safety of those visiting and inspecting your buildings (see questions 4, 5 and 8).

11. We have a gas safety and electrical safety inspection booked, can this still go ahead?

Yes. The Health and Safety Executive have updated their guidance on statutory inspections such as gas safety inspections and electrical safety inspections and these should now be undertaken if required. If you have a lift installed in your building, then it is important that it is inspected, tested and serviced in line with the manufacturers and statutory requirements. It is important that all reasonable precautions are taken when you are opening your building to allow for a statutory inspection to take place (see question 5).

12. What precautions should we be taking to control the risk of Legionella within our buildings?

The risk of Legionella in church buildings largely depends on how water is supplied to your building, how the water is stored and how the water is heated and distributed to your taps, toilets and in some cases, showers. The Health and Safety Executive has updated their guidance stating that even water supplied directly from the mains water supply may pose a small risk of transmitting legionella.

If you already have a Water Management Risk Assessment in place, then it is important that you continue to follow all of the identified risk control measures. If a Water Management Risk Assessment has not been carried out for your buildings, then the following risk control measures should be followed. If your water supply has not been isolated before closing your buildings then:

  • All taps and showers should be run for two continuous minutes at least once a week
  • Hot water should reach a temperature of at least 500C
  • Cold water should be below 200C

A record of any water checks should be kept and further advice about water management safety will be provided as part of the Church of Scotland guidance for preparing to reopen church buildings which will be available in the near future.

13. Can we still visit the church to cut the lawn or take care of the church garden?

Generally speaking, Financial Boards may consider allowing a volunteer to cut the lawn and attend to a church garden only if the precautions described in questions 3, 4 and 5 can be implemented and followed. Volunteers are advised to consider any gardening activity at a church building as being part of their opportunity to exercise outdoors as allowed by the Scottish Government.

Further information relating to the use of church buildings during the coronavirus pandemic can be found on the Church of Scotland website. It is important that Financial Boards regularly check the Church of Scotland website and ensure that they are using the most up-to-date guidance available.

14. Can the church organist visit the church to play the organ?

Church organs are a significant asset to many churches and we do understand that there is some anxiety about leaving church organs un-played for a significant period of time. We have received specialist advice which suggests that organs should be played, where appropriate, for 15 minutes per week to ensure the integrity of the organ mechanism. However, Financial Boards must take reasonable steps to ensure that the organ is only played to protect and maintain the instrument, and that the organ should not be used for general practice. The Financial Board must ensure that reasonable precautions are in place, including arrangements for the cleaning and disinfection of all hand contact surfaces (see question 5). A written record should be kept detailing by whom and when the church was accessed to play the organ. The Financial Board may have to coordinate access arrangements with the organists to take in to account of whom else may be in the building at the same time to ensure appropriate safe precautions are followed.  Financial Boards should also seek advice from the Church of Scotland Law Department before granting permission to organists who are furloughed before they are allowed access to the church organ.