Two-thirds of London’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community had Covid last year

Two-thirds of London‘s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community had Covid last year – nine times the national average, a study has shown.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the rate of past infection was at 64 per cent in the community of around 15,000 people.

This compares to rates of 11 per cent in London more generally and just seven per cent across the UK, according to estimates by the Office for National Statistics.

Suspected infections in the community peaked in early March, just before the first lockdown, when rates then began to fall sharply, before rising again in the autumn once restrictions were lifted.

The researchers say the reasons for such high rates of infection are unclear, but crowded housing and deprivation are thought to be contributing factors. 

Ultra-Orthodox families have significantly larger households than the UK average – with five to six individuals per house compared to a UK average of 2.3 – and tend to live in areas of increased population density. 

Hasidic Jews in north London ignored social distancing rules back in May as hundreds gathered to celebrate a sacred festival in their religious calendar 

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the rate of past infection in London 's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was 64 per cent

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the rate of past infection in London 's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was 64 per cent

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found the rate of past infection in London ‘s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was 64 per cent

Entire basis of ultra-Orthodoxy is communal gatherings 

While the researchers insist the reasons behind such high rates of infection are unclear, others suggest crowded housing and socio-economic deprivation as possible causes.

Ultra-Orthodox families have significantly larger households than the UK average – with five to six individuals per house compared to a UK average of 2.3 – and tend to live in areas of increased population density. 

Communal events and gatherings were regularly attended in pre-pandemic times, though there have been a number of high-profile breaches in recent weeks, too.

Israel Frey, an ultra-Orthodox journalist who has been critical of the community’s response to the pandemic, told the Jerusalem Post he does not see ‘even a gram’ of introspection or change in direction in the leadership’s attitude to the crisis.

He added: ‘Ultra-Orthodoxy in 2021 is about the energy of communal gatherings and celebrations: everyone being together. 

‘That is what sustains ultra-Orthodoxy – its entire basis is communal gatherings.’

Last week also saw the death of two of the most senior and revered ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the world – Rabbi Meshulam David Soloveitchik, 99, and Rabbi Yitzhak Scheiner, 98 – both of whom had previously being diagnosed with the virus.

A number of other religious leaders have fallen victim to Covid in Israel and the US, with funerals attended by thousands despite restrictions on gatherings, the JP reports. 

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Communal events and gatherings were regularly attended in pre-pandemic times, though there have been a number of high-profile breaches in recent weeks, too.

Israel Frey, an ultra-Orthodox journalist who has been critical of the community’s response to the pandemic, told the Jerusalem Post he does not see ‘even a gram’ of introspection or change in direction in the leadership’s attitude to the crisis.

He added: ‘Ultra-Orthodoxy in 2021 is about the energy of communal gatherings and celebrations: everyone being together. 

‘That is what sustains ultra-Orthodoxy – its entire basis is communal gatherings.’

Last week also saw the death of two of the most senior and revered ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the world – Rabbi Meshulam David Soloveitchik, 99, and Rabbi Yitzhak Scheiner, 98 – both of whom had previously being diagnosed with the virus.

A number of other religious leaders have fallen victim to Covid in Israel and the US, with funerals attended by thousands despite restrictions on gatherings, the JP reports. 

It comes after the Mayor of Hackney has called on Orthodox Jews to stop holding massive weddings after a string of events breaking lockdown rules emerged.

Police broke up a 150-strong gathering in Stamford Hill, north London, at a strict Orthodox Charedi Jewish school last Thursday.

Guests fled from the wedding held at Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School when police arrived at around 9.15pm, where some had covered up windows and closed gates to hide the celebrations.

The school’s former principal, Rabbi Avroham Pinter, died from coronavirus last spring, according to the Jewish News.

The publication also claims that at least 50 illegal Orthodox weddings have happened during lockdown.

Dr Michael Marks, who co-led the LSHTM study, said: ‘Our work has revealed the extremely high rates of infection in this very interconnected population. 

‘Working in tandem with the community we are conducting further work to understand the potential factors involved. These findings could support potential new interventions that may help reduce infection in the community.’ 

A police officer is told earlier in the day of May's gathering that only 10 members of the same family, who lived at the address anyway, would be attending the wedding

A police officer is told earlier in the day of May's gathering that only 10 members of the same family, who lived at the address anyway, would be attending the wedding

In the footage, an officer is seen searching the house, saying 'I'm crashing the party'. A reveler then replies, 'do you want to have a little drink? A beer?' The policeman dismisses the offer

In the footage, an officer is seen searching the house, saying 'I'm crashing the party'. A reveler then replies, 'do you want to have a little drink? A beer?' The policeman dismisses the offer

Officers attended the scene in north London in May before the celebrations, left, and were told that no more than 10 members of the same family, which lived at the house anyway, would be there. Police went back a few hours later and found the party in full swing, right 

Ethnic and religious minorities have been disproportionately affected by Covid throughout the pandemic, with deprivation, reduced ability to work from home and larger household sizes all thought to be contributing factors. 

Researchers add that while attention in the UK has largely focused on the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian populations, data from Public Health England shows other minority groups have also been severely affected. 

Jewish men aged over 65 years were found to have a rate of death twice as high as Christians, even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors.

Mr Marks said: ‘The rates we observed are among the highest reported anywhere in the world to date. 

‘As our survey was completed by early December 2020, prior to the subsequent surge in cases, it is likely that the overall burden of infection in this community is now even higher. 

‘Whilst lockdown measures were still very effective at reducing transmission, over the course of 2020 three out of four secondary school aged children and adults were still infected.

‘We would very much like to thank the community. It was a privilege to work directly with them, and think this community partnership approach could be a blueprint to further understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on other groups in the UK.’

The Office of the Chief Rabbi has been approached for comment. 

Rules on UK weddings during third lockdown 

The UK Government has said people in England should only consider booking a wedding or civil partnership, or continuing with one already booked, in ‘exceptional circumstances’. 

This may be if someone or a partner is seriously ill and not expected to recover, or is to undergo debilitating treatment or life-changing surgery. 

Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies must only take place with up to six people. Anyone working at the event is not included in the total.

People are urged to stay local and avoid travelling outside of their local area, but they are able to travel in England to attend a wedding if they ‘absolutely need to’ and it is being held in accordance with the legislation.

People can also leave England and travel to other parts of the UK or abroad, to attend a marriage. This is again when it is taking place as set out in the legislation, subject to any travel restrictions in that country.

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