Covid 19: Bishops call for Christmas Day ‘truce’ on coronavirus restrictions

Bishop John Keenan
Bishop John Keenan said strict restrictions on Christmas gatherings ran “the risk of destroying all hope”

By Bill Heaney

Scotland’s Catholic bishops have made the preposterous suggestion that all the safety restrictions now in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic should be replaced by a 24-hour “circuit breaker” on Christmas Day.

Bishop John  Keenan has been given the short straw of making the announcement following frowned upon  warnings of a “digital Christmas” from Professor Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested Professor Leitch’s statement was unauthorised by her or her advisers and that it was premature .

BBC Scotland is reporting in the Sunday Times, that Bishop Keenan has compared the idea to the Christmas Day truce during World War One when soldiers laid down their arms and peace broke out for a day in the battlefields of Europe.

Professor Leitch had warned people to prepare for a “digital Christmas” due to the prevalence of Covid-19 in Scotland. This was widely reported in the media.

He has since said he hoped there could be “some kind of family Christmas”.

The Scottish government said it could not predict Christmas restrictions but continued to be guided by the latest available scientific and clinical evidence.

Bishop Keenan, who also serves as the vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said strict restrictions on Christmas gatherings ran “the risk of destroying all hope”.

Professor Jason Leitch and Bishop John Keenan.

Medical advisers to the Government however shook their heads in disbelief at what they saw as a recommendation that families should be able to gather together in each other’s homes, kiss and hug each other and attend church services in unrestricted numbers, where they would exchange the “kiss of peace” which is normally a handshake with the people around you in the pews.

While he conceded that Professor Leitch was trying to manage expectations, Bishop Keenan wrote: “No one wants a digital Christmas.

“Squashing false expectations is one thing, but no one wants to dampen people’s hopes.”

He added: “Perhaps we should consider a Christmas ‘circuit-breaker’. A 24-hour lifting of restrictions on gatherings and celebrations, a break in the war on Covid, just like the pause in the First World War on the Western Front in 1914, when the British and German troops laid down their guns and met in no man’s land to celebrate Christmas.

Couldn’t we allow for one day of normality in the midst of our relentless war against the virus?  Think of the hope and happiness that would give. A moment of joy in the midst of so much despair.”

Bishop Keenan, whose diocese covers Greenock, which is an area of high levels of deprivation and where Coronavirus figures were for a time the highest in Scotland, said that “great care” would have to be taken to protect the vulnerable and the elderly, but raised the risk of “emptiness, loneliness and hopelessness at what should be the happiest time of year”.

He added: “The effects of a depressed and isolated Christmas could be devastating for many, leaving an emotional and social legacy that no vaccine could cure.

“Flattening the curve of infection rates has been a laudable goal of government policy this year. Rather than flatten the curve of hope, let’s lift our spirits with the prospect of a merry Christmas and happy new year.”

However, sceptics are still of the view that the best way to quash the virus is for the public to take the advice that is currently on the table, especially to wash your hands frequently and to stay in the house. Not to go anywhere unless your journey is absolutely necessary.

‘Some kind of family Christmas’

On Saturday, Professor  Leitch said his comments about a “digital Christmas” may have been too harsh but he was trying to be realistic and to encourage people that “what we do now matters for eight weeks from now”.

“Realistic looks like some kind of family Christmas but it will depend how well we get the numbers down,” he said.

“I could have perhaps been gentler in my use of the phrase digital Christmas, but I just mean you won’t be flying to visit relatives probably, you may not have large multi-household gatherings in your home.

“You won’t be having six families but you may well be allowed to have two or three families if that is allowed.

“Nobody can cancel Christmas, not even the national clinical director for Scotland. It’s happening, it is just to make it as safe as we possibly can.”

One West of Scotland Catholic said: “I can’t believe the bishops are thinking this way. If they do, they have failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation we are in.

“Large gatherings and meeting people in each other’s homes is not permissible. People who have the virus should isolate. Everyone should follow the recommendations of the experts.

“It’s not preposterous to say that the Bishop’s remarks are wide of the mark. It seems nonsensical to break the restriction rules until we are assured that it is completely safe to do so.

“If we are going to pray that this virus flattens out then we should do so from a place of safety – and at the moment the experts say that is from our homes.”

‘Not possible to predict’

A statement from the Scottish government said: “Decisions on whether to introduce additional protective measures will continue to be guided by the latest available scientific and clinical evidence and informed by a balanced ‘four harms’ assessment.

“We understand that people will naturally be anxious about whether they will be able to visit relatives over the festive period.

“The new levels approach we announced this week, if approved by the Scottish Parliament, will enable us to adapt our response to coronavirus more effectively. The more we do now to suppress transmission of the virus, the more likely we will have fewer restrictions in place at Christmas.

“However, given the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic it is simply not possible to predict at this stage what restrictions may or may not be required over the Christmas and New Year holiday period.”

Meanwhile, Deputy First Minister John Swinney has said the Scottish government is doing everything it can to get students home for Christmas, .

He said the four nations were trying to co-ordinate the mass movement of students to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19. This could include staggering students’ returning to their family homes.

And he said he recognised the importance of family and community occasions but that suppressing the virus was paramount.

Scotland’s Catholic hierarchy with Bishop John Keenan extreme right in back row.

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