We’re getting a bit closer to June 21st and are tensely waiting the Prime Minister’s press conference on Monday when we’ll know whether or not the final lifting of pandemic/lockdown measures will happen. Church leaders will be watching and waiting with baited breath because Monday’s announcement will affect whether and when we can return to normal church gatherings without face masks or social distancing and with singing.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a wide range of opinions and there is a risk of polarisation. Some people are watching the case numbers climb again and starting to get nervous if not quite panicking yet whilst others are arguing that hospitalisations and deaths remain low so “what’s the fuss? Let’s get everything fully open.” Such views held in wider society are reflected among the media and also heard within the church.
It’s important then that church leaders are fully informed on what the actual situation is. The easiest way to do that is to go directly to the Government website where data is reported on regularly. I have also found it helpful to follow a few twitter accounts not so much for the opinions of the account holders -though those are interesting but because they are committed to getting the facts out there by reporting data and analysing it.
So what is the data telling us at the moment. Well, the first thing is that cases have been riseing exponentially and at a steepening rate. On the 9th June 2021 7,540 new cases were reported. This compares to about 4,330 on the 2nd June, 3,180 on the 26th May and 2,696 on the 19th May. In other words, cases are increasing and the pace at which they are increasing is also picking up too. If that trajectory continues, we can expect to see over 20,000 cases by the 21st June. This is why people are suggesting that we could see a third wave right up there with previous waves in the 50,000 – 100,000 range.
But that’s only one side of the story. Case increase is patchy, there are variations across the country. Here in Sandwell, we are seeing only 20 cases each day whilst up in Bradford where I hail from originally, it’s over 100. We are seeing a surge of cases in the Greater Manchester area. This means that the experience of COVID may be disproportionate across the country. In many places it is unlikely now that you will know anyone or of anyone who has had the virus in the last few weeks. You can search on case data down to local authority ward level and our ward has persistently recorded 0-2 cases each day for some time now.
However, what really matters at the moment is hospitalisations. The purpose of lockdown measures was primarily to protect NHS capacity. The data doesn’t appear too bad at first glance. We are seeing about 100-150 new admissions each day and the number of deaths remains flat in the half a dozen to low teens range. Does this mean that we are out of the woods yet? Has the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths been broken yet? Well not completely. Remember that admissions is a “lag” measure because it takes a couple of weeks for cases to translate into admissions but also remember that hospital data itself tends to take longer to come out. Current figures are from the 3rd June so that we are a week behind. This is why it might take another 3 weeks to know how good or bad the situation is now.
If you go back 3 weeks, that takes us to when cases were around about 2,500. In other words, we are seeing about 5% hospitalisation within 2 weeks of cases. That’s why people are twitchy. If things remain constant then we can expect to see about 300 -400 admissions per day by early July and if cases continue to rise, then we could be seeing over 1000 admissions each day.
So, what about the vaccines? Aren’t they protecting us against the disease? Well, the good news is that they do seem to be doing just that. Vaccines aren’t 100% effective and so you will expect to see some cases, hospitalisations and sadly even deaths, however the figures show that the vast majority of people going to hospital have not yet been vaccinated and suggest that the vaccines are holding up at over 90% effectiveness against serious disease and death even against the Delta variant.
However, it appears that you do need the full double dose of your vaccine to get that protection against Delta which changes dynamics a little because a single dose provided much more effective protection against other variants. This means that whilst 77.3% of us have received at least one shot, that statistic isn’t so important as the one for 2 shots which lags back at 54.2%. Of course, the majority of those who have received their second jab are in the most vulnerable categories. This is probably why hospital trusts are reporting that their admissions are mainly among the younger population and it does seem that those being admitted are in better shape health wise, their stays are shorter and they are much less likely to end up on ICU. This is reflected in the fact that bed occupancy is rising more slowly than admissions.
Vaccination figures do not currently include under 18s and it does seem that there is a high level of transmission in this age category. This is important because this gives a context in which the virus could mutate. Future variants may be better able to escape the vaccine although we may also see that the virus becomes less deadly as time goes on.
As more and more people receive their full dose of the vaccine and have 2 or 3 weeks to let the anti-bodies start kicking in, this should reduce the number of people likely to catch COVIDF-19 and likely to be hospitalised and suffer severe symptoms. What this means is that the crucial question we need to know the answer to is not just “how many cases might there be in 3 -4 weeks time but also, how much of the population will be fully protected against severe illness.
All of this means that the next few days are going to be crucial for the data before the Government make a final decision at the weekend. The critical question will not just be about number of cases or even hospital admissions but also how long people stay in hospital for and the pressure on ICUs. People getting jumpy about having to wait until Monday before that final decision should remember that this was always the agreed strategy, that there was a gap between each phase of opening up to see how things are going and observe the data.
I think that there are two crucial implications here for churches. The first is that I would not be surprised if the government approach things with some degree of caution. There’s always been some wiggle room in the definition of “full” opening which means that there are a number of possibilities here including:
- A lengthy or indefinite postponement of re-opening. I don’t expect this to happen unless there is some really bad data on hospitalisations or evidence of efficacy problems with the vaccines.
- A delay of 2 -3 weeks, partly to enable more data gathering and partly to enable more vaccines to go out. It may also be that there is a trade off between re-opening hospitality and entertainment with the potential for transmission in schools so that the delay is until the end of the school term.
- A partial re-opening on the 21st June with some measures still in place.
My expectation is that the third option will be the most politically appealing for the Government but it will also depend on the economic advice they are getting.
The other factor we need to consider is public perception and confidence. This means that even if the Government go ahead with June 2st and we are immediately permitted to return to singing, get close and throw off our masks that a lot of people will still be very nervous about entering a venue where all of that is happening. Indeed, our neighbours around us might see us as being socially irresponsible if we do.
So, my advice to church leaders remains the same. I think we have to proceed with great deal of caution and not over promise. I would probably be looking towards September as being the point at which we will be in a better place to return to something looking more like normality. I realise that this is frustrating. However it is better to be cautious and realistic.
So my expectations for the summer remain
- That we will still have to allow a level of social distancing and probably require face masks to be worn.
- Singing indoors remains in doubt.
My advice would be
- Make best use of the outdoors during the summer to enable more singling and fellowship
- Prepare for capacity to be limited for some time yet. You may start to see an increase in numbers but you will need to provide for that. This could be by running overflow rooms or multiple gatherings
- Continue to provide online live streaming
- Continue to support Test and Trace. It may for example be that you encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to take up the offer of free test kits and test regularly.
We need to keep reminding people that God remains sovereign through all of this and that whatever happens on June 21st, we have a hope that does not disappoint.
 Note 2 weeks is a “generous” lag time it may be closer to 10 days especially as anecdotal evidence of people being in better health when they go in and hospital triage admitting more due to better capacity suggests patients are also probably being admitted much sooner after contracting the virus.