It’s nearly Christmas, and, by the time you read this, carol services will be in full swing and we will once again be bellowing those familiar verses. And, whilst we would ideally save all that until Christmastide has actually begun, we probably need to meet the world half way on this one. Here in Holborn, we nowadays schedule our Nine Lessons and Carols for before the end of term, so we shall be singing ‘Hail the incarnate Deity’ as early as the 13th. It leads to a kind of liturgical bi-polarity, as we continue to sing Advent hymns on Sundays, but, since the second Person of the Trinity is incarnate for evermore, I don’t suppose it matters.
But it’s worth remembering that two years ago we were barely singing anything at all. Whilst I don’t think it was actually against the law to have congregational singing in church, it would have been a brave priest who would have disregarded that particular ‘guidance’. The reason for the ban had its origin, we were told, in a place called the Skagit Valley, in the American state of Washington. The Skagit River rises in Canada and flows out into Puget Sound and into the Pacific. It’s in the top left-hand corner of the United States, and they have a tulip festival every Spring in the county town, Mount Vernon.
On 10th March 2020, the Skagit Valley Chorale held their normal choir practice in Mount Vernon, then lots of people got Covid. Skagit County public health officials pointed the finger at one person who had attended with Covid-type symptoms, and who, presumably, has lived ever since with the guilt of being the person responsible for 52 cases of Covid and two deaths. The subsequent report, by Hamner and others, was published two months later and thereafter was widely quoted in scientific papers, being used to suggest that communal singing was simply too risky, and had to be stopped. Churches were told not to reintroduce hymn singing when we were allowed to reopen, and choirs were given pages and pages of advice about how to minimize risk. Limit the numbers, stand yards apart, and maybe even put up Perspex screens, singers were told.
And it wasn’t only churches. Rules introduced during the staggered reopening of 2021 forbad singing in pubs, because of a suspicion that people might become over-exuberant when watching the delayed Euro ‘2020’ football tournament. But I think it was particularly painful for us in church. We were effectively banned from congregational singing for some sixteen months, and I recall having to go outside after the children’s crib mass on Christmas Eve 2020 so that we could sing a couple of carols in the freezing cold, which was apparently better for us than singing them inside a 70-foot high building with the heating on.
Well, last month, a publication called Public Health, which is an international journal published in this country by the Royal Society for Public Health, carried an article which casts doubt on whether the Skagit Valley Chorale incident should ever really have led to a singing ban. It was reported in some national newspapers, and more widely in the church press. As the Church Times put it, ‘scientists at Nottingham Trent University, Brunel University, and Brighton and Sussex Medical School, have concluded that many of the choristers’ symptoms had started too early to have been caused by the rehearsal’.
What lay at the heart of the problem was the assumption that the outbreak had been caused by a single source—a ‘super-spreader’—when in fact, says the paper, it was ‘vanishingly unlikely that this was a single point source outbreak as has been widely claimed and on which modelling has been based’. Ah, modelling.
The authors concluded that most of the Chorale members who became infected must have been infected before that 10th March choir practice. Their symptoms had simply started too early. Basic stuff? You’d have thought so. But one uncritically accepted presumption led to ‘erroneous policy conclusions about the risks of singing, and indoor spaces more generally, and the benefits of increased levels of ventilation’. As one of the researchers said in a subsequent interview, ‘All the “mights” got turned into definite findings’ by those who drew on the original Skagit study. ‘There is also a lack of evidence supporting the view that singing played any particular role over and above other kinds of face-to-face interaction within and beyond the rehearsal venue. It is far more likely that community contacts were the main route of transmission.’
So ‘To the extent that this outbreak report has been misused as a template, it is likely that other events have been wrongly characterised as single source, that there has been a misconceived search for super-spreaders, and a rush to excessive investments in ventilation technologies for enclosed spaces based on models that have assumed what their author should have questioned.’ Gosh. What other ‘taken-for-granted references’ changed our lives for all that time because there was no critical re-evaluation of an original hypothesis? I only hope that the poor so-and-so who has carried the worry of being the single person responsible for all that illness and death has been made aware of this new paper. I hope too that we will continue to enjoy our singing this Christmas, and that never again will we be silenced in our worship of Almighty God.