COVID and church re-opening

I’m continuing to try and provide little updates regarding what we are seeing in terms of COVID-19 data. My aim in these posts is particularly to help church leaders have visibility of the type of information that will be informing the Government’s decision making on whether to re-open fully on the 19th July.

This week, the Prime Minister and Health Secretary set out what form that final step to re-opening will take but as in line with past road map stages, the decision about whether to go ahead with stage 4 will be taken one week in advance of the date. So, this coming Monday, we will hear for definite about what is happening.

You will remember that in previous posts I’ve said that we need to be looking at two sets of data together. The number of cases need to be seen in conjunction with the number of hospitalisations.  The Government’s primary concern is whether the NHS will be able to cope with any increased demand that comes as cases grow.  Currently the % of hospitalisations to cases is around about 2.5-3% and that has been consistent for some time having dropped from a peak of about 8-9% initially to 4-5% (see the graph below).

That’s why we need to know how quickly cases are rising.  Over the past few weeks  they were growing at about 60-70% which translated into a doubling rate of once every 10 days. In other words, if cases were at 26000 per day on the 30th June we might expect that to be about 52,000 by the 10th July and 104,000 by the 20th (one day after the so called Freedom Day).  This means we would be looking at 2,500 -3,000 hospital admissions by early August. Whilst that is just below the previous peaks and it seems that the NHS have calculated that they could just about cope, it wouldn’t leave them with much head room.

So, what has happened with cases over the past week? Well, to give you a feel for things, I’ve included 3 charts below. These show the week on week growth rate for each day of data so far this week. 

The good news is that it does look like growth has slowed significantly. Remember that this means that case numbers are still growing and rapidly but not quite so fast. Instead of a ten day doubling time, we are looking at a twelve day doubling time. Those two days don’t seem a lot but they do make a difference and the hope is that we are beginning to see a genuine slow down as cases move towards their peak (there have been false dawns before so we need to watch carefully).   

I believe that this kind of information will be interpreted as a positive indication by the Government to go ahead with the further relaxations.  So, we can expect and prepare for things to reopen as planned. However, what this means is that will still be looking at daily hospital admissions over 1,000 and potentially over 100,000 new infections each day at the very point when we re-open our churches on the 25th July. I hope that the slowdown we are seeing means that cases are peaking but we cannot guarantee it and even still this means we probably will still be seeing cases increasing in the week leading up to the 25th.

This matters to us from two perspectives. First of all, we need to be alert to the nervousness that many people will still have about a return to church. Whilst the Government is asking the question “will hospitals cope?” Our members and seekers in the community are asking different questions including “could I catch COVID at church?” “Might I pass it on to my vulnerable neighbour?” and “will I see loved ones end up in hospital?”   So, they will be looking at the increased figures with some worry.  There are also concerns about the risk of Long COVID too. So, we need to organise for the 25th July with the worried in mind.

Secondly, whilst the Government’s announcement this week was seen as ripping up all the Non Pharmaceutical Interventions (masks, singing bans, social distancing), that isn’t quite the case.  All of those measures still have a part to play. The difference is that there won’t be specific regulations to enforce them. So, if you manage to get 100 people to cram into your building on the 25th July without face masks and start singing, then you won’t have the police turning up. However, what you might find is that if there is an outbreak at your church then your insurers and the Health and Safety Law people might have some questions to ask.

This means that the onus is on us to get our risk assessments right. The impact of a localised but severe Coronavirus outbreak in your congregation could be costly in a number of ways. First of all, it may lead to some people needing hospital treatment and that could lead to loss of life.  Secondly, there may be legal and financial implications for your trustees.  Thirdly  it will affect your relationship with your congregation and the local community with a potentially harmful affect on your ability to pastorally care for the flock and witness to the neighbourhood.

So, what I’m saying is get your risk assessments right. Don’t treat them as just a bit of red tape. Treat them as a means by which you care for the church family pastorally, love your neighbours and honour Christ.

This means that I still recommend that churches proceed with caution. You may also find it helpful to consult members, the wider community and your local Public Health Director. So, some things to consider.

  1. What is the maximum capacity of your building at which people can attend for worship whilst having enough space to feel safe?
  2. What will be your policy on facemasks?
  3. How will you judge when and where it is safe to sing?  I would not assume that this will automatically be possible in every church context on the 25th July and I expect that there will be government guidance on this.[1]

[1] Welsh guidance on signing permits it once risk assessments have looked at how to mitigate against disease transmission. For example this might mean singing quietly whilst wearing masks and only doing so when case prevalence is much lower than is currently the case in much of England.

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