Despite an assurance from outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that churches would be exempted from a ban limiting attendance to 50-people, officials in his department now say the rule must remain in place.
A senior bishop told The Irish Catholic tonight (Friday) that Government flip-flops on the issue are causing extreme frustration in parishes that have been working hard to re-open for Mass in a safe and responsible way.
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin had described the original restriction as “strange” and “disappointing” since many large churches could easily hold more than 50 while observing physical distancing.
Mr Varadkar announced last night (Thursday) that churches would be exempted, saying that specific protocols would be worked out to take account of the size of churches and other places of worship. His announcement was widely welcomed in Church circles, and work continued apace on re-opening for Mass on Monday (June 29).
However, The Irish Catholic now understands that the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser requested a meeting with Church leaders this afternoon. During the course of the meeting, Mr Fraser said that the Chief Medical Office Dr Tony Holohan had reservations about the decision of the Cabinet to give an exemption for places or worship.
He said that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) was “strongly against” making the exemption for churches according to a note seen by this newspaper.
It is understood that the committee had specific concerns in relation to churches including “the problem of access and exit from churches and especially in car parks”. The committee also referred to examples from overseas where outbreaks occurred around church gatherings. The issue of congregational singing was also raised as an issue despite the fact that the directives from the hierarchy said this should not happen at Mass for the time being.
The hierarchy was informed that the recommendation remains that no more than 50 people should gather for Mass.
A senior bishop told this newspaper that there was “frustration bordering of the exasperation that the Government seems unable to be on the same page on this issue”.
“Many of our churches can hold more than a thousand people,” he said, “and yet the approach seems to be that we must return again to a limit of 50,” he said.
Matters are complicated by the fact that Mr Varadkar is expected to resign tomorrow (Saturday) and be replaced as Taoiseach by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.