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Does singing increase risk of infection?

29 May 2020

Clergy, musicians, and experts debate science of virus spread


A virtual evensong on the theme of thanksgiving and unity included almost 1000 submissions from 20 countries, on Tuesday of last week. It was introduced by the Revd Richard Coles. Stephen Fry, Alexander Armstrong, Sir Simon Russell Beale, and Voces8 took part. The service was presented by the Rodolfus Foundation in association with the Friends of Cathedral Music and ChoralEvensong.org, and was put on as a fund-raiser for both the Foundation’s emergency fund and the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund

A virtual evensong on the theme of thanksgiving and unity included almost 1000 submissions from 20 countries, on Tuesday of last week. It was introduc...

THE Church has a responsibility to avoid being unscientific when talking about the science surrounding the coronavirus, a lecturer in medicine told participants in a webinar hosted by the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) last Friday.

The webinar, “What next for the ministry of music in our parishes and diocese?”, explored church thinking on the next steps towards the return of worship, the medical and scientific understanding in relation to risks from singing, and the implications for church services, music, and musicians. It was chaired by the Very Revd John Hall, the former Dean of Westminster, who chairs the RSCM’s council.

Dr Charlie Bell, the National Clinical Fellow of the Health and Social Care Committee of the House of Commons, and a Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, said that scientific opinion was divided, and the evidence was mixed, on whether singing carried an increased risk of coronavirus transmission.

”There is an enormous amount of noise around the science, with much conjecture and some scare stories,” he acknowledged. “We are not in a position to come down in any definite way. We need to produce risk assessments that are pragmatic and rational, different in different circumstances.”

Much of the debate has centred on the experience of the Amsterdam Mixed Choir. After a performance of Bach’s St John Passion on 8 March, 102 of the 130 members contracted the virus. One died, and others were admitted to intensive care. It was widely suggested that singers could propel droplets — the primary means of virus transmission — up to five metres in distance, but a fluid-mechanics expert in Germany concluded, after experiments with singers, that air flow was in fact half a metre.

Social behaviour at that early stage of the pandemic — close proximity, greeting and hugging, sharing drinks during breaks — has been suggested as the real cause of transmission. “There is no evidence that it was the singing which spread the disease,” Dr Bell confirmed. “We are assessing the risk. As the science will change, we will reassess. In answer to the question, ‘Is it safe?’, we don’t know.” There was no evidence that pipe organs spread disease.

With the changing science, flexibility was the key, as was access to good information about the science: something with which the C of E and the RSCM could help, he suggested. “The Church has a responsibility to speak scientifically when we talk about ‘science’ and what ‘the science’ is. Our bishops need to be really, really careful when they are giving advice to dioceses, whether that advice is based on science or risk assessment.”

His view was endorsed by the C of E’s national liturgy and worship adviser, Dr Matthew Salisbury, who said: “We must take care that we are not propagating information we do not know to be true. We must not hypothesise on things we don’t have the answer to.”

Where choirs were concerned at present, it was important to “keep the pack together, keep them doing what they were doing”, the head of St Paul’s Cathedral’s outreach department, Tom Daggett, said. Choristers there have a “phone tree” of one chorister to another, to maintain the conversation.

Warning of the risk of losing hymn-singing, he urged the engagement of people in congregations, singing on Zoom from their own homes, and spoke of the desirability of bringing in more instrumentalists, especially if staggered; smaller services would be the order of the day when churches were back for worship.

Given that the C of E’s 16,000 buildings ranged from “large, basilica-type churches to small churches with box pews”, the length of time before a church choir could be together would not be the same in every context, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, said. Everything was under active consideration in a changing situation, and the Church had to “respond to what the Government is telling us the rules are, and then determine various practical implications”.

It was about being “non-prescriptive and proportionate”, the Organist and Master of the Choristers of Portsmouth Cathedral, Dr David Price, said. He suggested using small singing ensembles, perhaps; or, in a large building, having the choir sing in one part with the congregation in another. Dr Salisbury said that guidance should be adapted to several scenarios: “Think in readiness about the possibilities in your own church and context, with the forces you have. Enthusiastic instrumentalists? Solo contributions?”

This had been a traumatic time — “disrupting and dislocating” — for church musicians, the deputy director of the RSCM and the former Precentor of Lincoln Cathedral, Canon Sal McDougall, said. “Many have had part of their identity removed.” She emphasised the importance of music for well-being, and the Church’s pastoral responsibility to those who provided its music. They needed reassurance, and they appreciated honest conversation. “Be clear there is a future beyond this,” she said.

Read more on the story from Angela Tilby

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