Okay, I was all ready with my article heading about a nu variant and then the WHO threw me a curve ball and called it “omicron” instead. I’ve decided to press on with a small variation to the title. Like me, your social media timeline and news feed has probably been full of stuff about the new COVID variant recently discovered in Botswana and South Africa.
My feed seems to be firmly polarised between those saying that this new variant will spread more rapidly and be less responsive to the vaccine, maybe rendering the vaccine useless on the one hand and those saying that there’s nothing to worry about at all on the other.
All have one thing in common though, after nearly two years of COVID, of listening to briefings and reading the tweets of actual experts we now feel very confident to pronounce verdicts based on the knowledge we’ve garnered. So, it’s probably a good time to remind each other of the importance of staying in lane and talking about our actual areas of expertise. It’s one thing to be able to do statistics, observe what is happening and spot trends, it’s even possible that some of us now a bit about behavioural science too. And that’s helpful for putting together things like risk management plans like I’ve been writing about for the past year or so. However in terms of how this Variant of Concern will actually affect things, all we can do right now is wait until those with the right expertise have been able to run their observations and draw their conclusions. In the meantime, we can say no more than they can which is “we don’t know.”
The discovery of new variants, especially those with significant changes can be concerning but the reality is that we don’t know what the threat is yet. First of all, it is possible that the variant has come into existence very recently and therefore spread extremely rapidly but it’s also possible that it has been around a little longer and therefore it’s advance is not as fast as we thought. Similarly, whilst we’ve seen variants like Alpha and Delta surge through the population with devastating consequences, we’ve also been aware of other variants of interest and concern for whatever reason seem to have died out quickly.
Whilst a mutation to the spike protein may make a variant more effective at bypassing antibodies, this does not mean that vaccinations are rendered useless, there are other defence mechanisms at work in response to the virus as well as antibodies and we’ve seen with Delta that whilst the vaccine was less effective at preventing infection (though still high by the standards of many other vaccines) it was still highly effective at preventing serious illness and death which is the crucial concern.
So for the time being we are going to have to sit tight and this means we are going to have to learn to live patiently with uncertainty for a bit longer. First of all, this means that church leaders will need to update risk assessments and risk management plans. There are likely to be two implications. First, be alert that when a new variant is in the news, it is likely to increase anxiety amongst attendees and the community about large events. You may wish to take steps to reassure people that all reasonable safety measures are in place. I would probably look at increasing your engagement with test and trace over the next few weeks.
Secondly, whilst the immediate response has been simply to introduce border restrictions, if this variant does take hold in other countries then it will still get into the UK and this might lead to the reintroduction of other measures around social distancing etc going into the Christmas period. Indeed, we may see localised measures in some places even if there isn’t a full national lockdown. So there is at the moment a small increase in the probability of church activities including normal services and Christmas events being affected. Therefore I would start to draw up contingency plans based on different scenarios from reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, reintroduction of singing bans and mandatory face masks through to bans on public gatherings. Plan B might be an outdoor carol service and plan c might involve a return to online events. I suspect in terms of time frames that the probability of us being hit by an omicron wave before Christmas however remains low to moderate rather than high but the possibility of restrictions in the new year are perhaps a little higher. Still I would err on the side of caution in terms of having a plan b ready.
The most important thing as our social media and the traditional media becomes dominated by COVID fear again is this. We should not be complacent but nor should we allow fear and anxiety to overwhelm us.
This morning (Friday 26th) I read these words from John 14:27 during The Daily Dose
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
I commented that one of the reasons that this peace is one the world cannot give is that this world seeks peace either by encouraging us to ignore and to hide from the reality of things or by seeking to change our environment by removing obstacles of peace whether war, plague or famine. Christ’s peace is different, it’s the peace that we can have in the midst of the storm.
This peace means that I don’t know whether this new variant will be worse than the previous ones leading to lockdowns, crowded hospitals and tragically high mortality rates, or whether it will turn out to be “a storm in a tea cup”. However I know that whatever happens, I don’t have to face these next few days and weeks ahead alone. We know that another wave cannot rob us of our identity in Christ. We know that even in the worst case scenario that death doesn’t have the final word.
We know that God is sovereign through all of this and working good to all that love him for his glory. So we do not need to lose hope or peace. The storm does not have to overwhelm.
“Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to know, it is well, it is well with my soul”