COVID Risk Management for churches update

As promised, here’s my latest update on COVID-19 risk assessments for churches.  First of all, here’s my current assessment on the 4 key risks.  Remember that this is a generalised view and the situation may vary in different localities.

 IDRisk DescriptionProbability
1Risk of causing COVID infection spreadLow
2Risk of invalidating insuranceLow
3Risk of breaching H&S LawLow
4Risk of increased congregation anxietyModerate
5Risk of creating a bad witness to the communityLow to moderate

Secondly, here’s some of the data that is affecting my assessment.  In terms of COVID cases, the number of new cases by reported date continued to rise through August at a slow but steady rate.  This recent mini-wave appears to have peaked around about the 29th August and over the past few days we have seen a fall in cases though there was a return to overall growth again today (03/09/2021).

It is worth noting that there seem to have been two specific factors affecting case growth. First of all, there was a spike in cases among young people that many have linked to festival attendance. Secondly, we saw significant case increases in Scotland even as English cases were falling.  For comparison, here are the Scottish cases

And here’s the % of growth in the rolling 7 day average.

Similarly, here are the English cases

And 7 day average growth. 

It’s worth considering the importance of getting behind the headline figures to understand the detail here.  First of all, be aware that regional variations can skew the national picture so it is important to understand what is happening in your local area. Remember that you can search by postcode on the Government dashboard. Other sites also offer regional and local breakdowns.  Secondly we need to be alert to the differences between age groups, so for example whilst we have seen a significant decrease in new cases for England, this primarily appears to be among the under 45s whilst cases continued to grow among the over 45s. This is important because the second category are more likely to see hospitalisations because of cases.  I suspect that what we are seeing here is a lag factor where (as with the Euros), transmission increased among younger people via festival contact and spread at a slower pace through older generations.

Scottish case growth has started to slow-down and in fact there was a small fall in cases today. I suspect we might therefore be seeing a specific case spike caused by multiple factors namely that the Scottish lifting of lockdown measures coincided with festivals and school re-opening to cause a significant spike in cases.  This may give us a level of confidence about what will happen with cases going forward.

In England having seen a reduction of cases after the Board Masters Festival spike, we saw a jump in cases today in a mirror opposite of the Scottish picture. I suspect that there are three potential drivers for that.

  1. Catch up from delayed reporting due to the Bank Holiday weekend.
  2. Further impact of festivals including Reading and Leeds.
  3. Resumption of mass testing of school children as term time begins.

The optimistic expectation here is that Scottish cases will continue to fall and that similarly, we may see a spike over the next week or so in English cases as schools return before that too settles down. However, opinion remains divided over what to expect through the winter months.  Therefore, I’d encourage you to keep a cautious eye on the data as English Schools re-open and then later in the month when students return to university.  I would also watch out for some of the modelling and forecasting that we can expect to see updated over the next few days. Remember that such modelling will include best and worst-case scenarios.  A crucial unknown at the moment is the level of impact that waning in vaccine immunity will have and what the policy will be on booster jabs and vaccinating under 16s.But the primary purpose of following case growth is to give us an early warning of what is likely to happen in terms of hospital admissions (about 7-10 days). I’ve been tracking the ratio of admissions to cases at 10 day lag and plotting as a percentage. This is what it currently looks like.

The ratio fell to below 2% in July. I believe that this was primarily due to a significant number of cases being among younger people due to the Euros effect and so less likely to lead to severe illness. As that effect has diminished we’ve seen the percentage increase again to ~3%.

I’ve been giving a projection of hospitalisations looking ahead 10 days and then plotting the actual admissions as we get them reported. I’ve been assuming 3.1% admissions in recent projections (I adjust this from time to time). Here’s how things are looking.

I’m expecting daily admissions to peak at about 165 per day within the next week or so. That would be 7,455 admissions per week. However, note that 0.3% either way could have a significant impact with admissions being as high as 8155 per week or as low as 6755. Whilst such numbers would put strain on the NHS they are within what the health service expects to be able to cope with and significantly down on the numbers were were seeing during the first and second waves (as well as much lower than the worst case projections for the summer).

Another consideration to take into account is the impact that re-opening has already had.  Through August, churches moved to a greater level of re-opening and there were a variety of approaches to this with some continuing to require or strongly encourage ongoing NPIs among their attendees whilst others were more relaxed about moving more quickly to normality.  I did a quick poll on twitter this morning among my followers with the following results.

First of all, my followers appear to be fairly evenly divided between those that have been requiring ongoing face-mask wearing at church though a majority have been meeting already without a face maks requirement and with singing happening.

Secondly, there has been a spread amongst attendees in terms of preference for continuing to wear masks. Note that around about 45% of respondents are saying that a substantial proportion or even a majority of their attendees are not wearing masks at church. However this also means that over 50% of respondents are seeing at least half of the congregation wearing face masks. This probably means that even in churches where face mask wearing isn’t required that significant numbers are continuing to do so.

Thirdly, it is important to note that there have been cases of COVID-19 transmission linked to church attendance (about 10% of respondents).  Now, this doesn’t give us an exact feel for the risk because it doesn’t give absolute numbers and there may be examples of cases that those participating were not aware about.  However, I think we can make the following observations.

  1. Church attendance is not without risk regarding COVID. We cannot completely eliminate the risk but nor can we eliminate other health risks. 
  2. It would be fascinating to compare the risk from attending church with the risk for other settings that members will be actively choosing to participate in.
  3. Whilst the question does not tie the mask question to the case incidence question, I think we can draw conclusions from the fact that the number of transmission incidents in the survey is substantially lower than the number indicating masks were not required (56%).  There isn’t a like for like comparison here. If removing facemasks was substantially increasing the risk in churches then I would expect a higher number of church related infections.

Finally, it is worth remembering again what the specific government guidance is relating to NPIS and gatherings.  Mask wearing is not legally required but strongly advised in contexts where there is likely to be a combination of crowding and poor ventilation.

My conclusion is that churches can and should move towards relaxing requirements for facemask wearing on the basis that they are unlikely to fall under the criteria above.  In order to bring the congregation and community with you it is probably wise to do this in a phased manner (for example continuing to ask people to wear masks when moving about the building and singing, then lifting the requirement for when singing and so on). Further, I would encourage the following risk mitigations.

  1. Monitor ventilation levels. The simplest way to do this is by purchasing some Carbon Dioxide monitors.
  2. Encourage people to test regularly for COVID-19.
  3.  It may be helpful for your risk assessment to ask people to let you know if they have been vaccinated. 
  4. Provide some form of contact tracing so that people can be quickly informed about transmission.
  5. Continue to operate at reduced capacity in your main meeting room by either offering an overflow relay at the same time or running multiple services.

Additionally, you will want to think about how to provide for those who remain cautious and anxious.  This is likely to include two options. First, you may wish to consider setting aside a section of the room for those who would prefer not to sing, to continue wearing a mask and to space out more.  Secondly, I think we will need to keep online content going longer term. My personal preference here would be that you provide a Zoom option rather than YouTube live stream. This encourages people to attend in line with the live service and even allows for participation.  It also gives you a better feel for who is engaging and who has dropped off the radar.

Finally, we need to keep encouraging people to bear with one another and look after each other patiently.  I would encourage some teaching on Romans 12-15 to this affect!  Keep seeking to love one another and to glorify God in all you do.