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Leader comment: Omicron, and how churches should respond

03 December 2021

PAST lessons do seem to have been learnt. The speed with which Covid restrictions were reimposed in the UK this week, with little fuss and, for once, without delay, gives this country the best possible chance to neutralise the effect of the new Omicron variant. The new restrictions appear to have been accepted with a wide degree of equanimity, though England seems to have more members of the awkward squad than its fair share. Our sympathy goes to everyone in retail or transport who must resume responsibility for the enforcement of mask-wearing.

Whether the new requirements will be adequate cannot be known until more facts have emerged about the new variant. Whether to extend restrictions further at this uncertain stage depends on other factors — though not, we would argue, politics, despite the cavils of some backbench MPs and the Daily Mail leader-writer, who this week rounded on “the merchants of doom: disciples of the authoritarian Left; politically driven scientists, Labour opportunists, scaremongering unions, attention-craving leaders of the devolved administrations”, all of whom are “just itching to slam down the shutters on British life”. Instead, risk aversion is typically experienced by people who have seen at first hand the ravages caused by Covid, or who trust those in the medical profession who attest to its savagery, or who are aware of the vulnerability of people close to them.

This is the group into which the Church falls. Exempted from compulsory mask-wearing — in this, at least, it is on a par with the hospitality industry — the Church has the legal freedom to ignore all restrictions, though of course not the moral freedom. The Bishop of London’s guidance on Tuesday carefully avoided mention of mask-wearing in church, though the hint was there. In the present circumstances, it is the least that churches can do. If the church building is large enough — and the congregation small enough — for a restoration of social distancing (in some churches this has never been abandoned), then the common practice requested in pubs and restaurants of mask-wearing while mobile would be adequate for now. But for churches that choose to be crowded, or find themselves so, the necessity of full-time mask-wearing is hard to gainsay.

Nativity plays were mentioned by the Prime Minister as being still allowed (though the vulnerable or unboostered might decide to stay away). Most churches, though, will be looking anxiously a little further ahead: at carol services — which for cathedrals, the larger churches, and college chapels start about now — and at Christmas. This week’s precautionary approach might slow the progress of the new variant enough to leave Christmas unmolested. That is a good reason to inch those shutters further closed for present.

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