Update on Omicron and Church Risk Management

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This is an update on my article yesterday regarding the recently discovered COVID Variant of concern. Two cases of Omicron have now been discovered in the UK.  This has to be accounted for in in decision making as when I wrote yesterday we were working on the assumption that the variant was not yet present in the UK and therefore the possibility that we might be able to delay its entry.

The first thing to say is that whilst I’m sure public health officials and those working on treatment and prevention would have preferred a longer window of time to observe and data gather that this doesn’t mean we have to hit the panic buttons.

The presence of omicron in the UK could be seriously bad news if it means that we have a variant here that will transmit more easily, evade vaccines and cause more serious illness. It’s bad news if those 2 cases are representative of a significant entry into the country of the variant.  This does highlight the problem with putting a few countries onto a red list. By the time countries are on the red list, the variant may well have spread further afield, the countries where it has been identified may not be the country of origin and so there is no guarantee that the measures will work or that they aren’t too late. They do however reduce the risk of high numbers of people with the variant entering the country and that enables us to work on contract tracing and surge testing to get on top of potential localised outbreaks here before they spread. However, some people have argued that we need to focus on ensuring everyone is tested as they enter the country and potential quarantining where necessary.

However, it is possible that the presence of cases here already is nether positive nor negative. If we are able to use surge testing to contain outbreaks then we may see a similar situation to with other variants such as Beta where the variants have been present in the UK without becoming dominant or posing a serious problem.

Thirdly, it is possible that we are beginning to see further evidence that the variant has already been in circulation for longer than first assumed. Francois Ballaux noted the other day that there is a level of diversity in the strain which is greater than he would expect if the strain was as recent as is being assumed. If this means that the strain isn’t suddenly becoming dominant over Delta then that’s cause for hope that it doesn’t have significant advantages over other variants.  It also means that we are going to know sooner as to how this mutation functions in a highly vaccinated population.

What this means is that I suspect we will probably now know within the next week a bit more about whether this mutation is a game changer for the UK situation and whether any of the following are required such as

  • New Non Pharmaceutical Interventions such as resuming social distancing and face masks
  • New Lockdowns
  • Speeding up and extending booster roll outs and potentially second/third vaccines for under 15s
  • Adaptions to the vaccines which I understand can be rolled out quite rapidly now.

My advice would be to continue to pastorally reassure people who are anxious, update your risk management plans and plan to meet towards the end of next week (week ending 4th December) to review church plans for over the Christmas period.

I’ve updated my model risk assessment as follows.

My view is that there is now an increased possibility of further restrictions and that there will be an increase in concern/anxiety both among congregation members and in the wider population. I am assessing those risks as moving to moderate to high for some restrictions (though that may increase or reduce as the week goes on).  I currently am working on the assumption of more stringent lockdown measures leading to in effect a pause in in person gatherings remains low but that also could change.

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