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‘Keep calm and carry on,’ says bishop, as UK coronavirus cases continue to rise

03 March 2020

Schools and churches take steps to halt spread of coronavirus


A man at a bus stop in Whitehall, London, wearing a protective mask on Tuesday

A man at a bus stop in Whitehall, London, wearing a protective mask on Tuesday

NHS Chaplains have an important part to play in reducing panic over the spread of the coronavirus, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, has said.

In just a few days, the number of confirmed cases in the UK increased from 30 to 116 this week, including three new cases in Scotland, one in Wales, and 25 in London. The first death in the UK was reported on Thursday. The Royal Berkshire NHS Trust said the patient, understood to be in her 70s, had been “in and out of hospital for non-coronavirus reasons” and tested positive for the disease on Wednesday.

The UK’s chief medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty told MPs on Thursday that it was now “highly likely” that the people now being infected in the country had no connection to overseas cases.

Bishop Newcome, who is the Church’s lead bishop on health care, has called for calm. “All the health experts are saying not to panic; to keep calm and to carry on as normal is important,” he said this week. “The Prime Minister is suggesting it could get worse, but not yet.”

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister set out a “battle plan” to prevent what he suggested was the inevitable spread of the virus in the UK. The plan, which includes launching a public campaign to encourage good hygiene practices, encouraging home working for vulnerable people, and bringing health professionals out of retirement, was agreed after a COBR meeting on Monday night.

By Thursday, the Government was said to be considering further measures to delay a more widespread outbreak, including restricting school and sporting events and preventing unnecessary travel. This “social distancing strategy” could delay the peak of the outbreak until later in the year, when warmer weather conditions might diminish its impact.

The Government was also considering introducing “emergency registration” of retired health professionals, emergency indemnity coverage for health-care workers, and relaxing the rules around staff-to-pupil ratios in education and childcare.

Mr Johnson said: “It is highly likely coronavirus will spread more widely in the coming days and weeks, which is why we’re making every possible preparation.”

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said, however, that large events such as the London Marathon would not be cancelled, and schools would not be closed, unless this was advised by Public Health England.

A staff member of a Church of England primary school was among the dozens of patients in England who tested positive for coronavirus this week.

A letter from the headteacher St Mary’s CE Primary School in Tetbury, Jo Woolley, sent to parents and published on the school website on Monday, acknowledged the “huge anxiety” the news had caused.

“Suddenly coronavirus is very close to us all and naturally our first thought is for our children and how we can protect them,” she wrote. The staff member had returned from northern Italy before it emerged as an impacted area. No one else in the school had been infected, she said. “As soon as we were aware that there was an increased risk, the member of staff went home.”

The school, which was temporarily closed, reopened on Wednesday morning. Mrs Woolley told parents: “Public Health England have advised that there are no health reasons for keeping the school closed. The school has been deep cleaned and it is safe.”

She later explained that staff would be modelling “good hand washing” and teachers would be encouraging the children to practice good personal hygiene. “We believe that with the increased cases of coronavirus across the country it is the right thing to be teaching children at this time.” Swimming lessons in a nearby pool had been cancelled. 

Other reported cases of Covid-19 in England this week included a secondary school pupil in Devon and a teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which is being closed for two weeks. Of all positive cases so far, 12 have since recovered.

PAA staff member disinfects a church in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday

The NHS has bolstered its 111 helpline service with more than 500 staff to manage the extra 200,000 calls it is receiving each day related to the outbreak. A new public campaign is being organised to encourage elderly and vulnerable people to receive a flu vaccination to help the NHS cope.

British scientists are working to produce a preventative vaccine or pill. Hospitals may use video calls to treat sufferers.

Bishop Newcome said: “Chaplains have an important role in supporting a sense of calm in hospitals and reassuring staff as well as patients. They also need to reinforce the essential message we are trying to get across to all our parishes: hygiene is fundamental; the importance of hand washing and common sense in terms of contact with other people if there is any hint or evidence of coronavirus symptoms.

“We have produced a set of FAQs, and hope that hospital chaplains will respond appropriately to the answers we recommend to those in hospital, just as our parish clergy in their parishes.” 

The Government has not yet advised that the use of the communion cup be suspended in churches. The advice from Church House (News, 28 February), which is updated daily, said on Thursday that, “in the event of increased community transmission of coronavirus, priests should take a view whether it is necessary to withdraw the Common Cup . . . Where the priest has not suspended the administration of the chalice, communicants may nevertheless decide to receive in one kind only at their own discretion.”

More detailed advice for clergy was also published on Thursday. The current advice states that “there is no need as things stand” for the communion cup to be withdrawn or for the sign of the Peace to be suspended. Hand sanitisers should be available in all churches, and intinction is not recommended.

In addition, anyone administering communion has been instructed to avoid placing the wafer directly on the tongue, and hands should be washed before and after giving the sacraments both at church and at home. No pastoral visits should be made to people in self-isolation.

The advice is different in the Church in Wales, which said on Thursday that “public administration of the chalice should cease . . . until further notice”, with only the celebrant receiving from it, and that “physical sharing of the Peace should be discontinued until further notice”.

Updated guidance from the diocese of London states: “The principle in church as elsewhere is to plan for the worst and work for the best.

“In working to mitigate the impact of serious disease, parishes and deaneries are encouraged to plan for business continuity. The ‘Reasonable worst case scenario’ [RWCS] is a tool used in emergency planning. RWCS for a pandemic is that we may have a period of up to 18 weeks when a large part of the population is ill. Though the risk is moderate, we could ask now how would the parish or church community function if up to 20 per cent of its people were off sick?” 

On Thursday, priests in the diocese of Oxford suggested that worshippers say the Peace in British Sign Language, to avoid the possible spread of infection through physical contact (see video, below).

The RC Church has issued similar advice. In situations where a case of coronavirus has been linked to a parish community, however, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference said that the distribution of the eucharist should be suspended, holy water stoups removed, and public veneration of relics and the Cross on Good Friday should avoid kissing or touching.

In addition, elderly or vulnerable people should avoid parish gatherings, the use of shared hymn books should cease, hand sanitiser should be used, and surfaces disinfected regularly. This advice may be distributed to all parishes should the spread of the virus escalate.

The Pope has a cold but tested negative for Covid-19, Italian media reported earlier this week. He has expressed his sympathies with people affected by the virus. In Italy, more than 3000 cases have been confirmed and 107 people have died. Pope Francis said last week: “I wish, again, to express my closeness to those who are ill with coronavirus and to health-care workers who are caring for them.”

The Economy of Francis event, due to be held in Assisi on 26 March, has been postponed until November because of the outbreak. About 2000 young people from 115 countries were due to attend. The Pope said: “Unfortunately, a cold prevents me from participating this year.”

In the north of the country, where the outbreak is most prolific, schools and churches have been closed. The RC Patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, has asked the regional government to allow mass to be celebrated, saying Christians “cannot live” without communion. Health officials responded that the restrictions were in place to keep people alive.

More than 90,000 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus worldwide and more than 3000 people have died as a result. Most of these cases are in China, where the virus originated, though the number of infections there seems to be slowing.

One of the largest outbreaks outside of China is in South Korea, where there are now almost 5000 confirmed cases. More than half of all new cases are connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, in the city of Daegu. The church has been described as a highly secretive Christian cult whose members are not permitted to wear glasses or masks.

Authorities in the country have suggested that members infected one another last month, before dispersing around the country. A senior member has since apologised and released information about its locations and membership.

The highest coronavirus death toll in the world after China is in Iran, where 92 people have died and where more than 2900 cases have been confirmed. Opposition sources suggest that the number of victims has been significantly under-reported.

The World Health Orgnanization (WHO) have raised the coronavirus threat level to “very high”, but it has not yet been classed as a pandemic. The WHO’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or deaths.” The virus had this potential, however, he said.

On Thursday, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, issued his own “golden rules”. They included,  “offer help and reassurance to others— and don’t demonise anyone or any group”, “don’t give into panic and start hoarding food”, and “live today to the full”.

Advice in Ireland. The Church of Ireland has issued a set of guidelines for clergy and laity, writes Gregg Ryan, Ireland Correspondent. The guidelines state that physical inter­action during services should be sus­pended. Clergy may choose to give the congregation permission to carry out an alternative sign of peace that does not involve hand contact.

Concerning holy communion, it states that everyone involved in administering the sacrament should wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand gel before beginning.

Watch the Revd Catherine Tupling, chaplain among deaf people in the diocese of Oxford, show the Revd Paul Cowan, Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford, how to say the Peace in British Sign Language:

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