The possibility of full re-opening from lockdowns hangs in the balance at the moment. The primary cause for concern is the newer B1.617.2 variant first noticed in India. It appears that the variant has a higher transmission rate and there is the possibility that it may not be quite as responsive to vaccines. The positive news so far is that lab trials and data gathered suggests that two doses of the vaccines on offer do give substantial protection against the variant and we can extrapolate from there that there will be greater protection still against serious disease, hospitalisation, and death.
In the light of that, the Health Secretary’s confirmation that 1/10 of those hospitalised in Bolton, one of the hotspots for the new variant had received 2 vaccines is positive. Given that around about a third of the population have received both doses, we would expect the hospitalised population to reflect the wider population and for there to be more than 10% of patients. It is also encouraging that so far an increase in cases has not led to a significant increase in hospitalisations although the lag factor needs to be considered too and it may take a few weeks before we see the true impact on serious illness and death.
It is because we are waiting for that data to come in and for other evaluations to give us a better feel for the efficacy of the vaccines on new variants that there is some uncertainty right now. Assuming the vaccines do their job with B1.617.2 we are still in a bit of a race against the spread of the variant to get enough people vaccinated with both doses to build up herd immunity. Until we have that, we still risk seeing a significant number of people getting seriously ill and that’s what the government want to avoid.
This has implications for churches. Earlier in the year, I suggested that we need to be cautious about assuming that the full shebang of at capacity services with singing, hugging etc would be in place by June. At that stage the Government were cautious about increased transmissions still causing problems and were talking about ongoing social distancing, mask wearing and other measures even after June 21st. We managed to go through the first few phases of opening up without an increase in transmission and that has given the government a bit more leeway, this has raised optimism that we could get the full benefits of ending lockdown in June. However, the new variant has shifted our expectations again.
So, what might we expect to happen in the next few weeks? Well if hospitalisations and deaths are still low, flatlining or even decreasing by mid-June then we are probably all set for final lifting. However, if there has been a significant increase then expect the Government to putt he breaks on. It is possible that they will do this by delaying the final stage by a month or two in order to enable people to build up immunity through the vaccines.
However, it is possible that they will still seek to make some changes in June particularly if the figures look manageable because there will be pressure on them economically and politically to at least provide some easing of restrictions to help out the hospitality sector. At the same time, even if restrictions are eased, we will also need to factor in a greater level of pubic nervousness about risks into our planning.
So, my advice at the moment is that if you are planning for re-opening your in person church services in full in June, then you need a plan B. Furthermore, if you are in a position to influence Government policy then I would encourage you to be talking to them about this plan B.
My recommendations would be:
- Plan for reduced capacity -even if it is not required by the Government, I expect that people will still want a level of social distancing as they come back to church. It is worth remembering the rule of thumb that your church is at capacity when the building is 80% full. That will be even more true now. So, I would assume that your capacity will probably be about 40% climbing to about 60 -70% through the rest of the year. It may take some time before people are fully comfortable with closer contact.
- Therefore, if you want to see more people attending and gathering then I would seriously look at adding in a second gathering. If you are looking to get 100 people along then you may stand a better chance of getting them in as two lots of 50 rather than one lot of 100.
- Continue to provide measures like one way systems to avoid pinch points, hand somatisation etc
- Ensure that you have as robust as possible contact tracing methods in place. Now there has been some debate about whether or not to use immunity passports and a lot of people are reluctant to do this as they fear it will lead to invasion of privacy and to turning people away who are unwilling to participate. However, even a voluntary option where those who are not yet vaccinated are encouraged to participate in testing might help to reduce risks and speed up contact tracing (as has happened in schools). It will be important at that stage to ensure (especially for those that are in talks with the government) that any contract tracing doesn’t risk civil liberties and most importantly doesn’t put up barriers to people attending.
- Keep reminding people that we are in the long game. Set expectations. People should not expect a return to normal church at the end of June. It is going to take longer. However, this should not discourage us. God is sovereign over all things.