Belfast Telegraph

Sign of peace: Aussie flu leads to handshake ban at mass

The outbreak of cases from the flu group that includes the so-called 'Aussie Flu' has led to the temporary suspension of the 'sign of peace' in Northern Ireland's largest Catholic diocese.

In a statement, the office of the Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor Noel Treanor stated the decision was being taken following medical advice, and the move would reactivate "precautionary measures originally established by the diocese in response to the swine flu epidemic in 2009".

In his statement, Bishop Treanor said the sign of peace handshake would not be restored until the risk of infection is "significantly reduced".

The diocese includes Belfast and Lisburn, as well as much of Co Antrim and Co Down.

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence programme on Sunday, Belfast-based Fr Martin Magill - a priest within the diocese - said: "I suppose people recognise the fact that with the health service - and if I might pun a little bit - we’re singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of hygiene and hand hygiene, and making an effort not to share around so many of the bugs and flu that are around at this moment in time.

"There seems to be so many people caught with it, so it makes sense."

Fr Magill acknowledged that "some people will certainly miss it", but that "people generally understand... the huge amounts of pressure that our hospitals are under at this stage".

The Public Health Agency (PHA) has acknowledged there have been 185 cases in Northern Ireland from the flu group that includes the so-called Aussie Flu.

The cases happened between October and December 31 of 2017, and at the end of the year there had been three deaths due to flu and 16 cases of flu requiring admission to intensive care units.

The PHA did not specify which strain of flu had caused the deaths, but that "no excess mortality" had been observed.

A sign of peace is a tradition associated prominently with the Catholic church in the UK and Ireland, but is also a feature in a number of Christian sects around the world.

The practice sees parishioners turning to one another and offering a 'sign of peace', generally in the form of a handshake.

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