A diocese in Northern Ireland has asked Catholics not to exchange the sign of peace during Mass owing to a surge in flu cases

The Diocese of Down and Connor also told priests to disinfect their hands before distributing Holy Communion, and warned them against distributing the Precious Blood as part of Communion.

The diocese said it was reviving measures first put in place during the swine flu epidemic in 2009.

Fr Martin Magill, of St John’s parish in Belfast, told the BBC that parishioners would understand the move.

“I think all of us are aware of the huge amount of pressure that our hospitals are under at this stage and so [we had] this idea of doing something that will make a difference,” he said. “It’s precautionary more than anything else.”

The H3N2 virus, referred to as “Australian flu” or “Aussie flu”, has spread across Britain and Ireland this winter. During Australia’s winter last year health officials logged 170,000 cases of the flu – double the number of cases on the year before ­– and 72 flu-related deaths. The H3N2 virus was thought to make up a large number of these cases.

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