The problem with opening churches too early…

The Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots has recently called for churches across NI to reopen following a graduated easing of restrictions, citing novel methods of worship outside of the traditional mass congregation. Surely this is a fine position to take considering around 93% of the NI population identify as Christian? No, no it’s not.

It is exactly this siloed approach that underwrites the nature of Stormont’s power sharing Executive and gives out of touch ministers, like Poots, a platform to elevate issues above their appropriate pre-eminence. On the face of it, reinstating church-going as a priority to normalcy appears to be vastly devoid of the joined up ‘collective’ thinking that the Executive would have normal people believe. The entire Institution is designed so that individual ministers have autonomy over their own portfolio and working together is therefore non-essential, despite recent virtue-signalling that all Stormont departments are voluntarily working towards a unity of purpose; there is literally by design, no collective responsibility. However, whereas there may be some close alignment for elements of the COVID-19 response to date, Poots’ proposal demonstrates just how artificial and unsustainable it is.

Last week, Michelle O’Neill credibly suggested on BBC’s The View that there are perhaps other areas where easing of restrictions would have enhanced impact other than permitting people to attend church this early. It doesn’t take an economist to suggest that that focus should be on economic activity that allows people to safely get back to work, give them back their livelihoods and kickstart the nation’s recovery. That is not to say that the easing of restrictions for worship shouldn’t occur in the future and is without benefits (mental health, etc), but any sensible pundit would observe that to focus any significant Executive effort on this issue now has an opportunity cost, which may be businesses failing and job losses. Instead, of course, we have an Agriculture Minister who I can only surmise is using his platform to advocate an issue that is wholly outside of his policy remit and can reasonably be attributed to a successful church lobby, or be a cause close to his own heart.

Opening churches too soon will inevitably drive associated activities like driving, refuelling, and using common areas amongst other things, which will ultimately increase the risk of virus transmission as it would almost certainly contribute to any increase of the reproductive rate of the virus above its new low of ‘R0.7’. With a significant proportion of church goers being the most vulnerable in society, it stands to reason that to expose anyone to undue risk is something that Poots and church leaders must be accountable for in the event that the virus begins to claim victims in that forum.

After reviewing Poots’ historic and out of touch policy positions against same-sex adoption, ‘gay blood’ and women’s rights to abortion, even the least sensible among us cannot in our right minds give his current proposal the rubber seal of approval. I mean, the case might be better made if churches in general had a better track record of governance and self-policing, but lurching from one scandal to another has hardly covered them in the glory that they rather erroneously preach. Garden centres on another hand, now that’s a different story…

Photo by Himsan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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