Hand sanitiser in demand as Northern Ireland clerics fear the spread of winter viruses
Congregations across Northern Ireland are expected to stock up on hand sanitiser and suspend the use of peace signs and physical greetings at services as a precaution against the spread of viruses over the winter months.
The outbreak of norovirus in various parts of Northern Ireland, particularly among children, is causing real concern, as is the annual danger from flu, priests and ministers say.
It comes after broadcaster Rev Richard Coles revealed he uses bottles of hand sanitiser in response to all the Christmas season handshaking.
In a Radio Times interview, the 57-year-old former member of The Communards pop group said: "After Hark the Herald, we would take up our positions in the porch to wish departing worshippers a happy Christmas.
"Ten thousand handshakes followed, or put it another way, 10,000 opportunities for viruses to pass from them to me."
Religious ministers in Northern Ireland are doing the same, with Rev Mairisine Stanfield, of First Presbyterian Church in Bangor, admitting she keeps sanitiser in her car.
Rev Stanfield, who has been off work for a month with a chest infection, said: "Touch is a really important part of my job."
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But, she added, this makes her "susceptible" to viruses.
Fr Aiden Brankin, of St Oliver Plunkett Catholic Parish in Belfast, expects the sign of peace to be discontinued in line with advice from previous years.
"It will be better sooner rather than later, particularly with so many young children being ill," Fr Brankin said. "We are expecting the sign of peace to be taken off, to be cancelled and it to be done throughout the diocese."
He added: "Some are glad of it, others may not be, but especially after last week and all the young ones off with the norovirus, we should take all the precautions."
Rev Paul Thomas, of the Free Presbyterian Church in Antrim, said two of his congregation are suffering from what he branded the "brutal" norovirus. He is also careful about visiting church members at home.
Fellow Free Presbyterian Rev Thomas Martin, who ministers in Lisburn, said he shakes the hands of all 300 in his congregation after services. "I am forever washing my hands," he confessed.
Church of Ireland Archdeacon George Davison said guidelines were distributed to parishes during a particularly severe flu outbreak some years ago.
"Although this was a number of years ago, we would assume that clergy continue to make sensible use of these recommendations when required," he said.
Parish priests and Eucharistic ministers are encouraged to use hand sanitisers and take other precautions to avoid the spread of viruses, including flu, said a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor.
Mass-goers are also encouraged to stay at home if they show flu-like symptoms and the sign of peace during mass is suspended, spokesman Fr Edward McGee said. "Normally such guidance is issued at a diocesan level having reviewed the advice and guidance from a number of health professionals," he added.
"However, it is also not uncommon for individual priests to take reasonable precautions like providing hand sanitisers and drawing attention to the general advice and guidance offered by the health services."