Yesterday Boris Johnson gave an update and brought in new measures for England in response to the Omicron variant. Those measures essentially bring England into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and include the following:
- The NHS COVID pass (vaccine passport) will be required for unseated venues (over 500 indoors and 4000 outdoors) and all events over 10,000. This will require either 2 vaccines or a negative LFT.
- Facemask requirements extended to places of worship, theatres and cinemas.
- COVID contacts to be required to submit a daily LFT Test
- People are encouraged to take regular Lateral Flow Tests particularly if about to enter a higher risk setting.
- Everyone is encouraged to work from home where possible,
For churches these changes are important as the Facemask requirement will now apply. In the Prime Minister’s oral statement he appeared to suggest an exemption for singing. My initial presumption was that this might be for choirs/soloists but the written statement doesn’t seem to reference this exemption at all so it is possible he misspoke on that point.
Update: Latest information from Danny Webster (EA) and John Stevens (FIEC) suggests that congregants will be allowed to remove face masks whilst singing. This will count as a reasonable excuse along with eating and drinking.https://twitter.com/_JohnStevens/status/1468848041465720838
Most churches will be significantly under the threshold for the COVID pass and so as things stand there is no need to require proof of vaccine status. However, it is worth noting the strong advice for regular Lateral Flow Testing, especially before attending in potentially high risk contexts. I think this is a strong indicator of preference and so I would recommend that churches encourage people to complete an LFT before attending and even perhaps offer an LFT station for larger events. This would be non-compulsory.
I’ve updated my risk assessment as follows:
The key changes are as follows. First, I’ve moved the risk of COVID infection/spread through congregations up to “moderate to high.” This is based on Omicron transmitting more easily, vaccines appearing to be less effective against transmission and greater case prevalence now. However, on the basis that vaccines are still expected to protect against serious disease, I am logging the risk of church members being hospitalised as a result of infection at church as low. Additionally, the proportion of people who end up in hospital or sadly dying from COVID does continue to remain much lower than during the 1st and 2nd waves of the virus as these charts show.
It would require 200,000 cases per day to see hospital admissions hit the levels they did last winter (over 3.5k per day).
You will remember that last time I added in two further risks, of further restrictions for churches and of churches being required to suspend in person meetings again. I had already given the probability of further measures being imposed a high rating, correctly as it turned out.
My current view is that we may expect further measures to be imposed. My reasoning is that this seems to be the direction of travel. Further, the measures introduced this week only really bring England into line with the rest of the UK and Western Europe. Such measures have not really dented the 4th wave (driven by Delta) and so I’m sceptical about their ability to hold back an incoming Omicron wave. It is possible that Work From Home may have some impact but this is a voluntary measure and many have continued to work from home through the Autumn.
It is possible that we may be at the peak of the current mini wave of cases and so there could be a coincidental fall in cases this week. However, if this does not happen then I suspect there will be more pressure on the Government to tighten restrictions from next week. This is likely to affect churches particularly if social distancing measures are reintroduced.
I’ve upgraded the risk of churches being asked to suspend meeting to moderate. My reasoning for this is that the prevailing view is that a new lockdown would be impossible to enforce and further that the PM has indicated to church leaders that he is alert to their needs going through Christmas. However things may well change in the New Year so w eneed to be ready for that.
Furthermore, whilst a new lockdown may leave places of worship exempt, I’m aware that many churches hire schools and other public venues and we may once again see a situation where those venues are reluctant to open up for churches under the restrictions that may be in place from the New Year. Churches should have a plan B in place for this happening.
So, for the time being: churches
- Should comply with the facemask requirements
- May consider recommending and providing for lateral flow tests
- Need to be ready for further changes to come in over the next few weeks.
It may also be the case that the change in situation will lead to an increase in the number of people who are reluctant to attend. So additionally, I’d encourage church leaders to make provision for them. This might include setting aside areas with increased social spacing in your meetings. I personally would encourage those who have suspended online/Zoom provision to resume it again.
I would alos encourage communication with church members prior to Sunday to reassure. Include a copy of your own risk assessment and publicly display your risk assessment and COVID measures on site.
Our primary responsibility is to care for people spiritually through this phase of the pandemic. I was struck again watching the press conference that whatever our views and levels of confidence in the Government, it is good to know that we have a good and sovereign God who knows the future. He is not surprised by these developments and he is able to keep us safe in the palm of his hand through the coming months.