Boris Johnson has indicated that plans to end all COVID-19 regulations will be brought forward from the end of March to early March with further announcements expected after the school half term holidays.
In practice, for England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to have their own regulations and guidance) this means that there will no longer be regulations requiring self-isolation if you test positive with COVID. It seems likely at this stage that there will still be guidance recommending that you do self-isolate for five days. However, there will be no fixed penalty notices enforceable against you personally if you choose not to.
Additionally, it is also rumoured that we are about to see an end tot he availability of free Lateral Flow Tests. Within the next month or two, the Government will discontinue the daily update of the data dashboard.
So, what should we make of these changes if they come into play? How will this affect churches and what should they do in response? Well, in this article, I am going to report on a little survey I did to see how those who engage with me on twitter are reacting. I’ll then share my own opinions and then we’ll talk about the practicalities for churches.
In my survey, I asked people whether they agreed with the proposals. leading to this response.
Now, those results may not reflect wider public opinion. Indeed a snap You Gov poll suggested significant opposition to the proposals and that many would prefer to see some legal measures in place for the foreseeable future. However, I suspect this is reflective of the mood among conservative evangelicals.
I then asked whether people would be more or less likely to self-isolate.
This is telling because although I pick up a higher level of scepticism about measures among those I interact with on Twitter, I still picked up a significant proportion who would follow the guidance. However, over half said that they are less likely to follow guidance that isn’t enforced by personal liability and fines.
I asked if people would be more or less likely to take lateral flow tests if regulations and penalties were lifted. I was particularly interested in this because I wondered if there would be a counter-intuitive response where without the fear of penalties, people might be more willing to act on a voluntary basis. However, the results did not suggest that this would happen.
Finally, a couple of people have suggested that with the regulations no longer in place, some people will be less willing to attend in person church as the main risk prevention measures will have been lifted. I had even fewer participants for this question but the response was overwhelming.
I suspect this is because for most people behaviours are now locked in. If you are already attending church, you are aware that LFTs and PCRs don’t catch every case so you are ready for a significant number of people to be mixing with COVID. Those people have decided that the vaccines reduce the risk sufficiently for people to be able to get on with normal life.
Meanwhile, those who are less likely to attend church when the regulations are lifted are those who are already staying at home on Sundays. Like the first category, they are also aware that many people don’t get picked up through the testing regime. However, this category have less confidence in the protection offered by vaccines.
My personal view is as follows. First, I believe that this is a step we are going to have to make at some point. If we are to see an end to the ability of COVID-19 to disrupt our day to day life, then we will need to end self-isolation rules especially for asymptomatic illness. However, secondly, there is a difficult judgement call to make about timing. Personally, I would have preferred the Government to wait a little bit longer and for the hospitalisation and mortality ratios to have improved further. There is still a risk that high case numbers will lead to high admissions, although it looks like we are less likely now to see people moving onto ICU and mechanical ventilation.
I also would prefer free LFTs to continue to be available whilst we move through the transition so that there is an early warning system in place for potential problems.
A third, factor that needs to be considered is the way that the public, event organisers/insurers and employers understand the nature of guidance. Technically, guidance does have some legal implications. People may not be directly liable and subject to fines individually. However, venues and employers still have to take into account guidance and failure to do so may place them in breach of Health and Safety regulations.
This is important because it should mean that employers carry a responsibility not to put pressure on employees to return to work having contracted COVID. They should encourage them to observe guidance. This also means ensuring that people are properly paid when self-isolating so that they don’t feel compelled to go into the office or factory. Meanwhile, It would help if people who have to miss events due to COVID are reimbursed their ticket costs.
Having said that, we may find that as we move into Spring and summer that the changes don’t result in any significant COVID impact. As mentioned before, many people are presumably already circulating with the virus. The primary defence against the pandemic now is not through Non Pharmaceutical Interventions but through pharmaceutical ones including vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
For churches, I don’t think the changes will make too many differences at this stage. It may well make sense to encourage people to use LFTs as long as they are freely available. I would also encourage people to follow guidance, not just regulations. If government guidance remains to self-isolate with COVID then that’s what people should do. For that reason, we will need to continue to make provision for those not able to attend in person.
All eyes will be on England now in order to see the impact of the next raft of changes. I would expect it to take a few weeks for changes to feed into cases from whenever measures are lifted and then another week or two for that to feed into hospital cases. So it will be at least a month after regulations are lifted before we know for certain.
I’m cautiously hopeful that England will come through this phase okay. However, the plans are not without risk.