COVID – update and thoughts as we look towards autumn and winter

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As we move towards September and out of the summer holidays, we want to start looking forward and thinking about the implications of what comes next in terms of COVID.  The other day I mentioned that the UK figures were being confused a little by what we are seeing in England and what we are seeing in the different parts of the United Kingdom. This was demonstrated by a comparison of the COVID growth in Scotland and in England.

This chart shows the reported daily cases in England.

Here’s the English growth rate.

As you can see, growth in England has been fairly marginal once the figures for the other parts of the UK have been stripped out. Yesterday we even saw a small drop of 4.5% in the number of reported new cases.  Meanwhile Scottish cases continue to grow with over 5000 new cases reported on Wednesday.

Those eyewatering growth figures have slowed a little but are still extremely high.

For further comparison, here is the data from Wales.

And here’s Northern Ireland’s.

Understanding what is happening in Scotland is important.  If it is a result of schools returning then the next week or two is going to be rather tense as English schools return.  I suspect that the school Lateral Flow Tests are playing a part but I also suspect it would have taken a little longer for that effect to filter through. So my current working hypothesis is that Scottish data is being affected by a number of factors including the re-opening of nightclubs and ending of other social distancing restrictions. I suspect that we also cannot ignore the fact that the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe are currently underway.

So, the first question we’ll need to see answered is whether or not the English situation is sufficiently different to Scotland’s or whether or not we’ll see a similar case surge when schools return. 

As we move into the Autumn, then the weather is also likely to start having an impact on case transmission. We seem to benefit from warmer weather encouraging people to meet up and socialise outdoors. I suspect that the ideal weather scenario going forward will be one of those later October “second summer” type effects followed by a cold dry winter with perhaps some proper snow-falls thrown in of the kind that require people to stay at home. This would be better than a mild wet autumn which drives people indoors at home and the pub.

The third factor we need to be aware of is the potential waning of vaccine efficacy. A recent study suggests that after one month, the Pfizer jab offers 88% protection against symptomatic infection but by 6 months this has fallen to 74%. Meanwhile the Oxford AZ vaccine starts at 67% after one month falling to 67% after four-five months. This means that older members of the population who received their second dose back in March/April will start to see their immunity wane over the next few months.

This should not be too much of a cause for concern. Remember that the vaccine will still be significantly more effective at preventing hospitalisation and death. Remember also that those figures still compare favourably with the vaccine efficacy of the annual flu vaccine. However, it does mean that if there’s a greater probability of infection that transmission rates will increase. I expect to see some updated models and forecasts for the winter reflecting that soon.[1]

This also means that the Government have some big decisions to make about the vaccination programme.  If vaccine efficacy is waning, does this mean that they should focus on a booster programme for more than just the most vulnerable in society.  There is a strong case for that. However, the figures above suggest the argument is not as clear cut. If those already vaccinated continue to carry significant protection against infection and substantial protection against serious disease, should our priorities be elsewhere?  There may be greater benefit from focusing on wider uptake of the vaccines.  Domestically, this could include a push to persuade those who declined the jab first time round to take it now. It could also mean a role out of the vaccine to under 16s to reduce transmission at schools.  There’s also a strong argument that we will not be able to properly return to more normal behaviour until the pandemic has been beaten internationally. If so, then perhaps the priority should be to share our spare vaccines with other countries.

The onset of winter and vaccine waning has two implications for churches as we plan ahead.  The first is that if we see a significant increase in cases over the winter, then this will affect the confidence of people considering a return to church.  Indeed, some people who were happy to turn out during the summer months with case numbers falling and voluntary measures in place may become more reluctant to attend in person during a winter wave.  We need to think carefully about how we look after everyone through the next few months.

Secondly, if there is a 4th wave through the winter then combined with other seasonal challenges that is likely to put greater pressure on the NHS.  The Government will also be under pressure to reintroduce additional measures to keep infections under control.  This could include a return to mandatory facemasks and some social distancing.  I expect Boris Johnson to do everything he can to avoid a full lockdown though.  More likely is that we could see the mandatory introduction of “COVID passports” with attendees required to prove that they have either received the vaccine or have recently tested negatively. 

Churches and members are likely to come to different conclusions about the morality and practicality of COVID passports.  I would encourage you to have the discussion now and decide what your policy will be. This also means that you have time to prepare other contingencies. If you choose not to use the system then you still need to consider how you will reassure the cautious and vulnerable in your congregation.

Whilst we are in a much better place concerning COVID than we have been at any time in the past 18 months and whilst the summer has proved better than many expected, there is still a long way to go.  I would therefore encourage church leaders to make best use of the time now in order to prepare for what may prove to be a challenging winter ahead.


[1] See COVID-19: Protection from coronavirus vaccines wanes within six months, study suggests | UK News | Sky News