COVID-19 risk management update for churches

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With Boris Johnson announcing an end to the “plan-B” measures for England from next Thursday, I thought it might be worth giving a little bit of an update on risk management for England. Unfortunately, this has to be very country specific as the changes will not apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,

Here is the updated risk assessment.

It is worth remembering that Omicron cases remain high and therefore there does remain a substantial risk of case spreading with potential impact on ministry staffing. This may also affect anxiety too. We do adjust our expectations based on what we have recently experienced and so it is easy to forget that whilst cases have come down a long way from the peak and fell substantially short of the worst case scenarios, they do remain high compared to previous peaks. Over the past few days, the rate of decline has been slowing and today (Thursday 20th January)’s case numbers are not far off last Thursday’s.

It is possible that we will see a plateau in case numbers at some point and that this plateau may come in at a higher rate than we saw in the Autumn. If we are getting close to that, we may even see case numbers increase again in coming days. There are three things that might contribute to an increase in cases going into February. First of all, we can expect schools to have some impact as they did in previous waves, secondly, the expectation was that whilst vaccine efficacy from boosters was high against serious illness, it was expected to be short lived against infection and therefore transmission. Thirdly, I suspect that we are beginning to see people become more relaxed about the risk as case numbers have dropped. I therefore expect a drop off in voluntary behavioural changes including testing prior to events and reduction in social contacts.

If this happens then we are dependent upon two crucial factors to see a further reduction in cases. The first is school holidays, so expect a further fall in cases around about February half term which will offer a little bit of a fire break. The second is the move from winter to Spring/Summer as COVID transforms from an epidemic illness to an endemic one with seasonal fluctuations. We may expect to see the warmer weather with more outdoor activity begin to contribute to a serious drop off in case numbers. On this kind of scenario we may see significant case numbers again in the winter and at this stage in the transition to endemicity that will no doubt continue to put pressure on health care.

All of this means that as with the Autumn, things will remain challenging for churches. Whilst there will not be regulations in place, there will be judgement calls to make about what is wise. How do we minimise the objective risk around infection and how do we look after the different emotional needs of people.

Therefore, my advice would be to return to a situation where people are asked to wear face masks when moving about but remove them for sitting. You may also wish to ask those who feel able to wear their mask whilst singing. There are three reasons for this.

  • This will bring us into line with where many churches were in the Autumn.
  • It is important to be clear that the risk of transmission may be lower than in December but it is still significant.
  • It is psychologically harder for people to move out of restrictions than into them so a transition period would be helpful.

This will enable churches to move gently out of measures and what I would expect is for people to gradually return to not wearing masks at their own pace.

It may be helpful to provide areas where social distancing/masking/no singing are in place for those who feel a little more vulnerable. I’d also continue to encourage people to test prior to and after attending. As mentioned before, I would have a COVID contact in place for the church to support rapid reporting of issues.

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