Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel are doing an incredible job in the current pandemic and they deserve our gratitude and praise. Their insights are valuable and it is important that their voices are heard, alongside all the other insights and all the other voices.
However, the call by Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, for churches to be closed as part of a lockdown is extreme.
The term “evidence-based” is used widely in public discourse and, day after day, we are being told of the need to “follow the evidence”.
Doctors are certainly trained to make evidence-based decisions and Dr Black will understand that very well.
Already, the head of the Catholic Church has challenged him and asked for the evidence. I hope that all other Church leaders will do the same.
We are told, time and time again, that decisions should be evidence-based. Three churches were closed yesterday due to outbreaks — is that the extent of the evidence we have to consider?
I would suggest that churches are among the safest of all indoor public spaces.
We have all seen news reports of late-night crowds, often alcohol-fuelled, behaving irresponsibly, with no regard for anyone, and we read of substantial fines being handed out to the organisers of illegal raves.
The Chief Constable of Nottingham has even said that university students who break Covid rules should be expelled. His call came after his officers had to break up 10 large parties over one weekend.
Churches, on the other hand, have gone out of their way to make their buildings and their services as safe as possible.
They are making every effort to reorganise their programmes to protect those who participate in them.
Churches closed their buildings during the initial lockdown and that afforded an opportunity to think through and implement what measures they needed to put in place.
We were told to remember “Hands, face, space” and, as far as I can see, churches are following that advice carefully.
Every church situation will be different, but in all the churches with which I am familiar hand sanitiser is being dispensed as people enter buildings and worshippers are wearing face-masks.
As regards “space”, they have introduced seating arrangements to ensure that there is good social distancing, whether by separating chairs or by closing off alternate pews and marking out safe distances.
Surfaces are being cleaned after the services and most churches are carrying on their children’s works, Sunday Schools and Bible clubs by means of Zoom, or something similar.
They are demonstrating restraint and responsibility, which is very much in keeping with the Christian command to “Love your neighbour as yourself”.
It’s never going to be perfect but the closure of churches to communal worship would be punitive and the call for such a measure could become very divisive.
This has been an unfortunate intervention by Dr Black and we must hope that he will reconsider it.
However, there are three lessons in this whole unfortunate episode. Day after day, especially in this era of 24-hour news, Government ministers and scientific advisers are being interrogated about every proposal they bring forward and every action they take.
But such interrogation should not be limited to politicians.
All the spokesmen who feed into the public discourse, whether businessmen, trade unionists, doctors, or whatever, should also be open to interrogation and challenge.
Secondly, we all need to think carefully about what we say, especially those in positions of influence.
After so many months and with so much information overload, public discourse is becoming increasingly febrile and that is not good for society.
Finally, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. Yes, it will be dubbed a U-turn by some people, as if it was some sort of “unpardonable sin”.
But, as Winston Churchill is reported to have said: “There is nothing wrong with change — if it is in the right direction.”