COVID Reopening – brace yourselves and hold your nerve!

I’ve been trying to give a regular update for church leaders on how things are looking regarding final reopening on the 19th July. 

So first of all, the not so good news.  You’ll be fairly well aware of this by now.  Over the past few weeks we’ve seen COVID-19 cases increasing rapidly. The increase seemed to slow a bit a week or two back which was probably a result of the bright sunny weather in late may/early June leading to more outdoor meet ups and of course half-term closing the schools for a week. However, we are seeing case rates increasing rapidly now.  Cases reported over the past few days have been between 14,000 -18,000 compared with 9-12,000 about a week ago.[1] Cases seem to be doubling every 12-14 days meaning we  are looking at over  60,000 cases daily by the end of August.[2]

Now, whilst the majority of cases appear to be amongst those under 30 who are not yet fully vaccinated and whilst the majority of over 60s and the most vulnerable have received both jabs, we know that none of the vaccinations are 100% effective and this means there will still be cases among those who are vulnerable and a proportion of those infected will end up in hospital and from there onto ICU and sadly some will die.  This is why there was some concern about reopening everything too early. 

Back at the start of June, data suggested that the percentage of hospitalisations from COVID was about 4 -5%. This was a major improvement from earlier in the year when figures were closer to 9-10%.  However 5% of cases leading to hospitalisation would still mean that we could expect about 900 admissions by early July and by mid August we would be looking at  2,700 hospital admissions per day.   

However, have a look at the current situation.  The latest hospital data goes up until the 22nd June and here are the 5 days’ worth of data leading up to the 22nd.[3]

18/06    232 admissions

19/06    211 admissions

20/06    203 admissions

21/06    223 admissions

22/06    227 admissions

Now look at the data for cases going back 10 days prior[4]

08/06    7666 cases

09/06    7984 cases

10/06    7839 cases

11/06    7466 cases

12/06    6111 cases

This means that with a 10 day lag, there were an average of 219 admissions against an average of 7,409 cases.  This means that we are looking at an admission rate of 2.9%. In other words, the hospitalisation to case ratio has come down substantially so that if this stays on track, we should be looking at closer to 500 daily admissions by late July rather than the 900 -1,000 which we could have been looking at. [5]

Now, I’ve suggested in the title that we need to hold our nerve for the next week or so. This is because we can expect the positive test rate to climb substantially this week.  You see, given that we haven’t introduced any new measures to restrict transmission, we can expect it to continue to increase exponentially for the time being. That should start to change by August due to two factors, first of all, the school holidays will put a pause on one apparent context for significant transmission. Secondly, the vaccination programme should be having an affect by then on the under 30s. 

Yet, the expectation was always that we were going to have to live with the virus and that meant there would come a point when we would need to return to normal life. The expectation was that as with other viruses such as the common cold, we would be able to go about life as normal with a high prevalence of the virus in society because the vaccine would be protecting the most vulnerable against severe disease.  That’s the theory but we don’t completely know if the experts have got it right until we put it to the test. That’s what is going to happen over the next few weeks and the final re-opening will be the biggest test of all.

So, I think we can continue to be cautiously optimistic about the final stage of re-opening happing. However, there is something that we need to take into account too. We cannot ignore the psychological impact of the high case numbers that we will see through the summer.  These will continue to be reported and this will leave people still feeling wary. Secondly, there will continue to be hospitalisations and sadly mortalities. This too will be a cause for concern. Indeed, one thing that will happen is that because the vaccines are not 100% effective, we can expect to see an increase in the proportion of deaths of people who have had both vaccines.  This may also lead to concern. It’s important that people know that this is to be expected and does not in any way undermine the efficacy of the vaccines.

However, that caution means that it bears repeating again, we need to take people with us. There will be a lot of people who will still be nervous about returning to in person church. This will not be about them being merely fearful for themselves, they will also be wanting to be good neighbours. So my advice would be:

  1. Continue to focus on encouraging people to return as they feel able.  Don’t put pressure on those who are not ready
  2. Continue to provide online content
  3. Continue to demonstrate that your venues are COVID secure by providing contact tracing, hand sanitisation etc
  4. Be prepared to continue to function with actual capacity significantly lower than your normal capacity.

If I may at this point say a further word about things like singing. Much was made last week of the Welsh government removing guidance saying that congregations should not sing, the wording was a little bit more nuanced. In fact, singing should only happen there after there have been careful risk assessments looking at the case prevalence in the area and at mitigation measures in place.  This is one area where I think we should continue to move cautiously even if restrictions are lifted in England.  We should bring people with us one step at a time and show that we are being responsible in our decision making. Remember that those who are already back meeting are those who are most likely to be less nervous about the impact of the disease and so those you are hoping to draw back in after lockdown lifts will be those that are more naturally risk cautious. How are you going to show love and care for them?

I suspect that the summer will give us time with people taking holidays to gradually build towards a fuller reopening by September. Though remember that there are voices warning about winter restrictions returning and some flexibility in the months ahead will be needed.


[1] Cases in the UK | Coronavirus in the UK (data.gov.uk)

[2] See Oliver Johnson (@BristOliver) / Twitter 

[3] Healthcare in the UK | Coronavirus in the UK (data.gov.uk)

[4] Cases in the UK | Coronavirus in the UK (data.gov.uk)

[5] See also this thread which looks at admissions as a percentage of cases within the last 31 days. Peter Donaghy on Twitter: “Despite the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the UK this week, hospitalization and death numbers continue to look encouraging. The number of inpatients as a % of 31 day cases has fallen to 0.6%, and appears to still be falling. https://t.co/3wjAnenKiL” / Twitter

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