The crucial difference between “at the earliest” and “at the latest”

“Don’t build up expectations, don’t get hopes up”

“You will do better to air on the side of caution and pessimism”

“Be realistic”

These are the key messages that have been coming through from national church leaders involved in consultation with the Government over the past few weeks. It can be very frustrating if you are hopeful of finding ways for church to gather again soon to get knocked back like that.  There is significant pressure from some quarters to get up and running again. It’s not about being gung-ho, everyone wants to be responsible and safe but we are also aware of the impact that lockdown is having on the emotional fabric of the nation and well-being of many.

I think the key is this. People hear Government statements about schools returning in June and churches in July and depending on your personality and experience you are likely to react with either incredible excitement, eager to see things starting up again or with a lot of fear, apprehension, panic even, especially if you feel that you are being rushed or compelled into something. Churches re-opening will be about permission not compulsion (except maybe with the Church of England once bishops have made their own decisions) and so I imagine that if we were in a situation where the Government could order us to reopen then I would expect a lot more anxiety and people expressing concern that it is simply too soon.

So, this is why it is important to remember the difference between “at the earliest” and “at the latest.”  My reading of the Government’s approach is that it remains incredibly cautious. If teaching unions and the BMA are cautious  about the risks and want to see evidence that the virus is genuinely and fully under control, then so does the Government and its advisors. Here is what the Government’s roadmap for leaving lockdown says:

“The Government’s priority is to protect the public and save lives; it will ensure any adjustments made are compatible with these five tests. As set out above, the R is now below 1 – between 0.5 and 0.9 – but potentially only just below 1. The Government has made good progress in satisfying some of these conditions. The ventilated bed capacity of the NHS has increased while the demand placed on it by COVID-19 patients has now reduced (as shown in Figure 4). Deaths in the community are falling. However, real challenges remain on the operational support required for managing the virus. The Government cannot yet be confident that major adjustments now will not risk a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS. Therefore, the Government is only in a position to lift cautiously elements of the existing measures[1]

So they are walking a cautious tight-rope balancing the risks associated with physical health and other aspects of well-being. It is those other aspects of well-being that mean there is a need to enable return to work, school, church and cultural entertainment. 

The Government recognises that social distancing measures can exacerbate societal challenges, from the negative impacts on people’s mental health and feelings of isolation, to the risks of domestic abuse and online fraud. The Government must act to minimise the adverse social costs – both their severity and duration – for the greatest number of people possible.[2]

These concerns for well-being are driving the desire for a timetable to return to normality although the document is clear that we are not yet ready to take steps such as opening schools. It is important to remember that this is the point. If we feel that at the moment it is unsafe to open schools, churches, cafes etc that is because it is. However action planning means thinking ahead to when things will be different. In fact this is one of the real challenges of change management. In my experience both in industry and church leadership, most of us rarely feel ready to think and talk about things at the time when we need to and part of that is because we are talking and thinking about things we are no-where near ready to face and to do. In fact, we see this in the Bible, Jesus has to talk consistently to his disciples about his forthcoming death when they are not ready to hear it.

So, what we see in the roadmap is a desire to see things happening again and a need to talk about them. However, we also see that those desires are heavily caveated by the requirements both for the virus to be brought under control and the ability of various agencies to provide the relevant infrastructure for going forward. This is the context in which they roadmap says:

To aid planning, the Government’s current aim is that the second step will be made no earlier than Monday 1 June, subject to these conditions being satisfied. Until that time the restrictions currently in place around the activities below will continue.

The key thing to note is that the need to be planning for the possibility of certain things to be in place whilst recognising that they may well turn out not to be possible in June and July. That’s the difference between “at the earliest” and “at the latest.” As well as looking to see what is happening on the ground here, they will also be looking to learn lessons from other countries. For example, Denmark is following a similar model to school returns whilst Germany and Spain are seeing phased returns for churches with similar phases to what we expect to see here.[3]

Now, there are two risks to be alert to here. The first is that we get caught up emotionally and either begin to struggle with anxiety or that we become too optimistic and then then some things cannot happen we feel crushed.

The second risk is linked to optimism. Something that started out as “at the earliest” then turns into “at the latest.” The plan to do something begins to gain a life of its own and then people begin to push it as a sure certainty. In their desire to be optimistic they also begin to lash out at those they see as negative leading to a breakdown in trust.  Before we know it, we find ourselves having to go ahead with the plans whether or not we are ready and the goal-posts are moved in order to make that possible.

I hope we will not fall into that trap.  The best way to avoid that is to encourage openness and transparency on plans and good communication with the relevant parties

It is important that the Government acts and speaks in a way that leaves us confident that no unnecessary risks will be taken with the lives of children and teachers.

It is important that we do not increase anxiety levels for already worried parents and children.

As far as churches go, I am so far encouraged that there has been a willingness to consult and listen. There does seem to be caution and a desire to do things right.  I hope that this is happening across the spectrum.

As a local church, our commitment remains to follow the best advice and to proceed with care to ensure that any return is safe and sustainable. Please be patient with us as we move forward towards re-opening.


[2] An additional article of interest is this one because as schools around the world are re-opening, we have more data available on the affect of the virus among young people in school.

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