CHURCH leaders in Blackburn and Bolton — epicentres of what some fear could be Britain’s third wave of coronavirus — have insisted that Christians must combat the scapegoating of post-industrial northern towns.
For weeks, the highest rates of new Covid cases in the UK were in Bolton, mostly linked to the fast-spreading Indian or Delta variant, dropping from a peak of 453 cases per 100,000 people to 388 cases in the last week of May. On Monday, the neighbouring council area of Blackburn with Darwen overtook it, with 390 cases per 100,000.
Despite the renewed focus on the north-west, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said on Tuesday that no blame should attach to the area. “So much of this has to do with absolutely endemic long-term social inequality. It’s constantly the poorest areas which have the highest rates,” he said.
Some have pointed to lower-than-average vaccination rates among ethnic minorities as partly to blame for Bolton and Blackburn’s recent spikes, but Bishop North rejected this.
“There is a risk, of course — it’s implicit in the name ‘Indian variant’ — of scapegoating towards the South Asian community. I think churches need to stand up very strongly . . . to make sure that isn’t the case and we don’t get an ethnic group blamed for this, which would be wholly unfair.”
Noting that it was only 20 years since race riots in Burnley, not far from Blackburn and Bolton, Bishop North said that calm heads were needed. “I do worry about things which drive a wedge between different ethnic groups.”
He pointed to other factors in the spread of the virus, such as overcrowded housing and poorly paid and insecure jobs, which meant that it was “literally unaffordable” for people to self-isolate at home.
Locals were not panicking about the recent surge, because Covid had never really gone away, he said. There was, though, “a sense of ‘Here we go again’”.
This was echoed by the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland, who said that it felt as if his town had been in some kind of lockdown continuously since the pandemic began, more than a year ago.
He said that his clergy were exhausted and struggling with the uncertainty of not knowing what the rules on public worship would be, and whether the planned lifting of restrictions on 21 June would now go ahead.
He had been encouraged by the “exemplary way” in which churches had risen to the challenge, he said, both in the vaccine rollout — Blackburn Cathedral is the town’s central hub for jabs — and in service to the community through foodbanks, assistance for those shielding, and other activities.
The Area Dean of Bolton, Canon Christopher Bracegirdle, spoke of nervousness in the town before its Covid spike began to subside. “There was that personal uncertainty in terms of safety, but also uncertainty for the business sector, who have gone through so much and are getting so close to being able to rebuild, only to see that it might be clawed back from them.”
He echoed Bishop North’s concerns about inaccurate speculation. “We’re always glad for Bolton to be on the map — but not for things like this.”
The story that he wanted to tell was of church leaders’ joining imams and Hindu leaders in the town to organise a cross-community campaign to encourage more vaccination and more testing.
“I do feel proud, not only of my own faith community: I think the town has worked hard, and the council support has been outstanding,” he said on Tuesday.
Bishop North spoke about the lifting of restrictions on 21 June: “I think that is a killingly difficult decision to make. Certainly in Blackburn, at the moment, it would be unwise to relax any further. My prayers are totally with people making those decisions.”
“Frankly, I’m glad I’m not the one of the government advisers having to make those decisions,” Archdeacon Ireland said. “They’re the medical experts, and our challenge is to trust their judgement and to respond appropriately.”