COVID and church risk management update (31/12/2021)

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We go into 2022 with COVID cases high primarily as a result of the new Omicron variant. Case numbers recorded daily have been at eye watering levels with records broken daily. Currently the expectation is that cases will peak sometime in January but at exactly what level we cannot be certain yet, although it does look as though case growth was beginning to slow down towards the peak just before Christmas.

Reports have suggested that increasing numbers of children have been going into hospital for or with COVID-19 raising concerns that this may indicate that Omicron has evolved to be more severe for younger sufferers.  However, the numbers alone do not necessarily point to that. It is just as likely that the increased number of cases alone will be enough to increase hospitalisations and that if vaccines are working well for older generations, then this will lead to a reduced proportion of over 18s ending up in hospital. In other words, what appears from one perspective to be indicating a rise in the proportion of under 18s in hospital may in fact be an indicator of increased vaccine efficacy and a reduction in the proportion of over 18s suffering severe illness.

On that basis, I do not believe that we need to introduce an additional line on our risk plans for children’s work.

However, it is worth being aware that whilst it does seem that our experience of Omicron is less severe than with Delta and the original virus, if we are seeing exponentially more cases then we are likely to see a significant increase in the number of people going into hospital (potentially anything between 3k -12k per day throughout January).    This does have significant implications for pastoral work as I would expect a lot more of a pastor’s weekday time to be given over to supporting those with loved ones in hospital.

Additionally, there is a higher likelihood that staff and volunteers may find themselves isolating due to COVID or even in hospital themselves. I’ve added in a risk assessment line specific to this. I would encourage churches to have back up plans in case should a significant number of staff and volunteers be required to self-isolate at any given time. These plans may include

  • The need to suspend some activities
  • Moving some ministries online
  • Encouraging those involved in up front ministries to pre-record material that can be projected if need be.
  • Evaluating what is essential to the ministry/event and what could be cut back on if needed.

I have reduced the risk levels for in person gatherings being suspended or further restrictions being imposed. My reason for this is that the Government in England has shown greater hesitancy about introducing measures and resistance to pressure than I initially expected. Meanwhile, I suspect that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced all or at least most of the additional measures they are likely to bring in.

In terms of moving forward into the New Year, I would encourage churches to continue with following whatever guidance is in place (this varies across the United Kingdom). As a minimum, continue to encourage people to take an LFT prior to attending church services, small groups and week-day ministries. 

Something that I should have thought of before is that it would be helpful to make it easy for members to quickly notify if they have a positive LFT within a day or two of testing positive. In addition to the NHS app, it might be helpful to set up a dedicated email address and appoint a COVID co-ordinator (someone other than  the lead pastor to monitor this, take phone calls from those not on email and communicate with the church family as well as local public health team should the need arise.

Finally, I would encourage you when reviewing your risk plans to also review how things have worked so far.

  •  Have there been cases of COVID reported?
  • Is there evidence of transmission from church events?
  • How quickly were we notified of cases?
  • How responsive were we?

Such reviews should also include conversations with the church family to see how they are finding things.

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