Rhinegold Photo credit: Public Health England, Porton
Salisbury Cathedral lay vicar Richard Hooper joins an experiment to test the spread of Covid-19 through singing

Maggie Hamilton

Seeking answers to Covid-19

3:30, 9th September 2020

Two lay vicars at Salisbury Cathedral have taken part in research at Porton Down.

With Covid-19 having temporarily shut down choirs, Richard Hooper and Jonathan Woodhouse participated in experiments held at the headquarters of Public Health England at Porton Down as part of the national effort towards finding ways to resume safe singing in churches and cathedrals.

Hooper explains: ‘The experiments took in total about 90 minutes.  The standard piece of music sung by each of the test subjects was “O Come All Ye Faithful” – it felt a bit odd singing Christmas carols!  I had to do some coughing and breathing, then read out the carol, sang the carol, and then sang a couple of pieces of my choice: “Why Do the Nations” from Messiah, and a Schubert song (they were interested in whether singing in a different language might have some effect on the results), while two scientists watched through a window and occasionally held up bits of paper to tell me what to do. The apparatus consisted of petri dishes to collect droplets under the influence of gravity in various directions and at various distances, and the silver cylinders were stacks of dishes arranged so that air sucked in through the top brought aerosol droplets which were collected according to their size.   Between each 10-minute session of speaking or singing, all the dishes were replaced – they were all carefully numbered to be sure where in the room they had been.

‘During the sessions the air flow in the room was carefully managed, and I was clad in full disposable coveralls to minimise contamination from my body.  To get results, the dishes were cultivated to allow bacteria to grow, and analysed to identify the presence and quantity of specific bacteria that are naturally (and harmlessly) found in the mouth, thus indicating that substances from the mouth have made it to the dishes – this is obviously of interest for understanding disease transmission.’

Until the lay vicars’ involvement, test subjects had been amateur singers and non-singers sourced from within the PHE organisation itself (they have a company choir). The results of the tests are awaited.


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