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Don Disobey Stephen Donnelly tells bishops defying communion guidelines 'lives will be at risk'

There has been controversy about the increase in numbers permitted to attend weddings, which goes from 50 to 100 from this Thursday.

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Taoiseach Micheal Martin meets 3rd class pupils from St. Brigid's Girls National School in Glasnevin (from left) Isabella Ryan (10), Ella Brereton (9), Charlotte Collins (9), Caoimhe Flanagan (10), and Faye Haverty (10) who made their Communion today as a small group, after it had been cancelled four times

Taoiseach Micheal Martin meets 3rd class pupils from St. Brigid's Girls National School in Glasnevin (from left) Isabella Ryan (10), Ella Brereton (9), Charlotte Collins (9), Caoimhe Flanagan (10), and Faye Haverty (10) who made their Communion today as a small group, after it had been cancelled four times

Taoiseach Micheal Martin meets 3rd class pupils from St. Brigid's Girls National School in Glasnevin (from left) Isabella Ryan (10), Ella Brereton (9), Charlotte Collins (9), Caoimhe Flanagan (10), and Faye Haverty (10) who made their Communion today as a small group, after it had been cancelled four times

HEALTH Minister Stephen Donnelly has issued a blunt warning to Catholic bishops, urging them not to resume confirmation and first communion ceremonies.

"When you're dealing with a deadly virus, ultimately what you're doing is putting people's lives at risk," the Health Minister said.

Mr Donnelly was responding to questions about the stated intention of at least three Catholic bishops to resume communion and confirmation ceremonies in their dioceses against the anti-Covid-19 guidelines.

Last week, Bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, wrote about the need to ease these restrictions and stated his intention to cease keeping to them.

Bishop Doran said he and senior diocesan priests had decided the ceremonies should be held in line with public health regulations for general religious services.

"The mission of the Church cannot be put on hold indefinitely," he said, arguing the ban was a "guideline" and not a binding law.

The next day the Bishop of Clogher, Larry Duff, and Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Alphonsus Cullinan, announced they were going to do the same as their colleague in Elphin.

There has been controversy about the increase in numbers permitted to attend weddings, which goes from 50 to 100 from this Thursday.

Against that, the Covid guideline for funeral attendance remains unchanged at 50 mourners, and communions and confirmations are still not permitted under the public health directions.

Mr Donnelly said he understood the frustration among people of religious faith and saluted the patience shown by church leaders of all denominations.

"The public health measures have been very difficult for people of faith and for religious institutions," he told the Herald yesterday.

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Stephen Donnelly

Stephen Donnelly

Stephen Donnelly

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"In spite of this, the churches have played an essential role in Ireland's national efforts to suppress Covid.

"The public health measures are there to keep people safe and ultimately to keep people alive.

"Ireland is doing well and I would ask any clergy considering going against the public health measures to stick with them."

Mr Donnelly said that among any group in society, there will often be those who decide against following the rules.

He acknowledged that Bishop Doran is right to say the communion and confirmation ban is "a public health guideline - not a law".

"But we have a lot of evidence of 'spreader events' arising out of communions and confirmations," he said.

"We know this and that's the only reason the public health advice is there not to do it."

One year on from taking office, the Health Minister said that by now, most people accept there are anomalies and even some contradictions in the public health advice and regulations set out to fight Covid-19.

"There are always going to be differences, unless everything is closed.

"People accept now that it isn't a binary thing. It's about - in totality - is this sufficient to supress the virus?" he insisted.

Having spent much of last week visiting vaccination centres across the country, he is taken by the enthusiasm shown by health service staff and volunteers in delivering a unique public health success in the State's history.

"It has been one of the most successful vaccine programmes anywhere and it has produced unbelievable work and co-operation," he said.

The vaccination campaign is now targeted towards young people and poses new communication challenges to deal with parents' concerns for those aged under-18.

The walk-in vaccine centres are a further boost to getting younger people inoculated and national pride in the campaign has renewed social solidarity which, he argued, has been Ireland's best asset in fighting the pandemic.

Mr Donnelly is confident schools will reopen on time from later this month and that every teacher who wishes will be vaccinated in time for later this month.

But there is no question of vaccination for primary school children happening anytime in 2021, as no pharmaceutical company has submitted an application to the governing European Medicines Agency for approval of a children's vaccine.

Mr Donnelly is keen to stress that the Delta variant is the most contagious variety of the virus to strike, and probably the most severe.

He is looking hopefully at signs that early spikes in the UK, Malta, Cyprus and the Netherlands are tailing but, at all events, the experience of Ireland and France with Delta has been different.

"There are hopeful signs that our level is plateauing and increases in case numbers remain low for now at least," he said.

Like the public health officials, Dr Tony Holohan and Paul Reid, in recent days Mr Donnelly was in upbeat tone about the future.

He suggested this may be a turning point in the campaign against the pandemic - but stressed the need for caution.

Mr Donnelly acknowledged that it has been a tough year for him, full of stress. But he noted this has to be set against the suffering of Irish people generally and vulnerable people in particular.

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