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Social gatherings should cease, PM warns, in effort to slow spread of virus

16 March 2020

The implications for church services are detailed here


The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, speaking in Downing Street on Monday afternoon

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, speaking in Downing Street on Monday afternoon

THE Prime Minister has urged everyone in the UK, but particularly those over 70, expectant mothers, and those with other health problems, to avoid all social gatherings in an effort to lessen the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In the announcement, made on Monday afternoon, mention was made of pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres.

The implications for church services were explained in a letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on Tuesday lunchtime. A Church of England spokeswoman had said on Monday evening: “We are examining the latest advice from the Government and Public Health England, and will update clergy and congregations as soon as possible.

“We take Government public health advice with the utmost seriousness, and recognise our duty to each other and our communities, especially those who are vulnerable. Churches across England are already looking at other ways of providing worship opportunities and spiritual support for people at a time of national crisis, through digital channels and other means” (read our story here).

Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, Boris Johnson said that people should avoid unnecessary travel, and work from home wherever possible, in a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus. He expected that, by next weekend, people aged over 70, and those with underlying health problems, would be advised to “shield themselves” from contact with others for 12 weeks. Also, households where one person was ill should all self-isolate for 14 days.

He also announced the withdrawal of emergency service support for “mass gatherings” such as sports events. There are no plans yet for school closures, however.

Mr Johnson said that the fast-growth period of the pandemic was near in the UK. London was several weeks ahead of the rest of the country. “It’s far more important now than just washing your hands,” he said.

The UK death toll from the virus rose to 36 on Monday. The first fatality in Wales was confirmed at Wrexham Maelor Hospital. Most of the deceased have been over the age of 60 with underlying health conditions.

According to the latest Department of Health figures, more than 44,000 people have been tested for Covid-19: 1543 have proved positive, an increase of 171 on Sunday’s total. Among them is Kate Osborne, the Labour MP for Jarrow, on Tyneside, the second British MP to be infected. About 170,000 people have been diagnosed across the world and more than 6500 have died.

The effects of the virus have been almost universal, from stock market slumps and international airline shutdowns to cancelled church services and panic buying in supermarkets. In one response, the BBC announced that the end of free TV licences has been put back from 1 June to 1 August.

The crisis has caused the cancellation of the installation of the new Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Jackson, at Hereford Cathedral this coming Saturday. Bishop Jackson has just emerged from a period of self-isolation after returning from a holiday in Italy. He said that, while he was disappointed by the cancellation, he recognised that there were bigger considerations.

“I am delighted that the legal enthronement will still take place as planned. The exceptional times in which we now live mean that we are having to adapt our plans and the service will be scaled back. Please join me in praying for our nation and supporting those in our communities who are most vulnerable or at risk.”

A recording of the formal enthronement will be posted on the diocese’s digital channels after the event.

The advice on the Church of England website draws on advice from the NHS and Public Health England, but appears out of date after the Prime Minister’s press conference. It advises clerics to suspend the administration of the chalice, and to avoid physical contact during services.

In a message posted online, the Archbishop of Canterbury offers advice on how people can walk in faith, resist fear, and support the most vulnerable. He urges people to sit quietly and pray, “letting God know about those things that are on our hearts and minds. When we do that, we make that connection with God that nourishes and sustains us.”

One priest in Manchester has launched an online conversation to gather ideas on how churches can help others. The Revd Grace Thomas, Assistant Curate of Whalley Range (St Edmund) and Moss Side St James with St Clement, was contacted by a 72-year-old congregant with a list of things she felt would be helpful if she came down with Covid-19.

Suggestions included listening to hymns, especially “the old ones popular with us over 70s”; keeping calm with Christian meditation websites; and posting a daily encouraging thought. “Maybe you ordained people can start us off, but it will be important for us to feel useful, creative and still part of things that will help us stay well.” Other ideas included a benefice WhatsApp group to make communication easy, and a list of everyone who would like to be prayed for.

Ms Thomas said: “We will be posting on social media regularly and possibly livestreaming, but it's really helpful to have ideas for those whose online access is limited. If anyone has any other suggestions, I would love to hear them.”

The Revd Dr Jo Kershaw, Assistant Curate at the North Wakefield Benefice in West Yorkshire, has posted online a list of resources for people who are isolated at home.

“Being stuck at home can be boring, frustrating, or lonely, even if there are other people in the house with you,” she said. “And if you are very unwell, or worried you might become so, it can be frightening, too. God is with us in these situations, whether we are conscious of his presence or not. Remembering this, and relying on him in prayer, can help you to keep going.”

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