England comes out of lockdown on Wednesday this week and enters the three Tiers system. The rules in Wales have not changed since 9th November and the Tiers will not apply. In Scotland, Covid restrictions are governed by five Protection Levels. Central Council guidance is now moving to respond to the Tiers and Protection Levels and so will now be different in England, Wales and Scotland.
First the good news and perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel for other areas. Just before we went into lockdown for the second time a month ago, we had reached agreement with the House of Bishops Recovery Group to drop down to 1m+ distancing, and then introduce local risk assessment based on the characteristics of the ringing environment and also risk assessment based on personal circumstances. Our guidance is that in Tier 1 this can now happen, although at first we only recommend ringing for 15 minutes until ventilation in towers is better understood. However look to the end of this statement for our plans in that regard.
In Tiers 2 and 3 we are still recommending that we stick to the government’s guidance that is the same for both Tiers, and that is that “No mixing of households indoors, apart from support bubbles.” As was discussed when the lockdown started, one can argue the definitions of mixing, interacting and mingling, some might even try and argue that ringing is an act of worship or even employment, but the clear intention of the public health experts is to reduce interactions as much as possible so that we get through the winter without another wave of infection. That restricts ringing in Tiers 2 and 3 to families that live together and other households, or the ringing of single bells as currently.
The opportunities for handbell ringing will improve over the lockdown conditions. In Tiers 1 and 2 a maximum of six people can meet in any outdoor setting including a domestic garden, so provided you are warm enough, socially distanced handbell ringing is viable. Tier 3 is slightly more restrictive in that mixing of households outdoors needs to be in a public space, e.g. parks, public gardens or churchyards. Again this give the opportunity to meet perhaps outside the church and ring handbells. Not that you should not travel from a higher tier to a lower tier for handbell ringing.
Wales does not have the Tier system but does have social distancing of 2m and a recommendation that indoor gatherings other than with your household or extended household is avoided. However, the Church in Wales has specifically recognised ringing in its guidance for places of worship and specifically permits ringing as follows:
“Bell ringing is permissible, but bell ringers should observe two-metre physical distancing and hygiene and cleaning regimes should be implemented. Careful consideration of how bell ringers will access the building suitably distanced from other attendees needs consideration e,g diff erent entry points or staggered arrival times. Bellringing arrangements should comply with guidance available from the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers at https://cccbr.org.uk/coronavirus/ ”
Our guidance in Wales is therefore that ringing should still follow 2m social distancing and be restricted to 15 minutes. Ringing for longer could come following the ventilation trials explained below.
Ringing handbells outdoors in a public space is allowed subject to the overall guidance on social distance and avoiding large gatherings. Handbells in gardens is allowed however there is a rule that only householders and their one extended household can meet in their gardens. However that still might present some handbell opportunities on warmer days.
There is an overall social distancing restriction of 2m between people (not ropes) which is a key driver for practical ringing.
In the top Protection Level 4, ringing has stopped because public worship has stopped. However, in all other Levels ringing is possible provided the social distancing guidelines are possible and duration restricted in accordance with previous guidance.
Ringing handbells outdoors is allowed subject to the overall guidance on social distancing. In Levels 2 3 and 4 up to six people from two different households could ring handbells outdoors, subject to social distancing and woolly hats. In Level 1, that increases to eight people from three households. The household restrictions do not apply to 12-17 year olds.
Ventilation and increasing ringing time
At first the guidance in Tier 1 is still only to ring for 15 minutes (as it still is in Wales also), however we are going to be working with some ringers on the Isle of Wight and in Cornwall, the two regions with bells that will be in Tier 1, to understand the benefits of ventilation using CO2 meters.
The use of CO2 meters as a means of measuring the effectiveness of ventilation came from studies summarised in a recent review from the Royal Society. Indeed CO2 measurement is the industry standard used to demonstrate effectiveness of commercial ventilation systems. In an enclosed space like a ringing chamber, our breathing causes CO2 levels to increase. Ventilation brings in fresh air and the CO2 level drops. A CO2 meter is a pretty good proxy for the adequacy of ventilation, which in turn will help us estimate if ringing for longer than 15 minutes is safe (because Covid infected aerosols don’t build up). If the CO2 level in the room does not increase, it is likely that the ventilation is good, and we can ring for longer.
Phil Barnes and David Pouncey have both bought a particular kind of CO2 meter from Canada which can be connected to a laptop and display the change in CO2 levels over time. In the Isle of Wight trial, a couple of bands of relatives will ring for 30 minutes in towers with a broad range of ventilation characteristics and measure how the CO2 levels change. This will then be used to give much better guidance on what other towers need to do to improve ventilation. By the time other regions drop into Tier 1 we hope that this work done by the Isle of Wight and Cornish ringers will enable us to move straight to ringing for longer in towers where the characteristics show that aerosol transmission risk is low.
Overall, there is cause for optimism. There will be disappointment for many in Tier 2 areas particularly that the Tier restrictions do not enable us to get back to where we were in the summer, but then that is something the government has thought about in maintaining and indeed increasing their overall restrictions. December 16th may bring more Tier 2 areas into Tier 1. Hopefully the work that will be done with CO2 monitoring will help us to increase ringing times in more towers as more regions drop into Tier 1.
As has been said by various ministers and public health officials, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to, and the Tier rules “are not boundaries at which to push, but limits of what you can do.”
Ultimately being sensible and being aware of the risks is a sound basis for deciding on whether to ring or not.
President, Central Council of Church Bell Ringers