THIS Christmas will now be “different and difficult” for many, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, after plans to ease restrictions over Christmas in England were cancelled by the Prime Minister on Saturday afternoon.
In an emergency press conference, Mr Johnson announced that London and much of the south-east of England would enter a new tier 4 with harsher restrictions from midnight on Saturday to prevent the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus.
He outlined the new rules in a statement, in which he said that non-essential retail, indoor gyms and leisure facilities, and personal care services must close — public worship, however, can continue.
“Unlike the November national restrictions, communal worship can continue to take place in tier 4 areas,” he said.
The chief disruption is to family plans for Christmas. The new ruling is that those living in tier 4 cannot now travel to join a Christmas bubble in another tier. The only travel permitted from Sunday is for essential work or education.
“People should not enter or leave tier 4 areas, and tier 4 residents must not stay overnight away from home. Individuals can only meet one person from another household in an outdoor public space.”
The planned five-day relaxation of the rules in England allowing up to three households to meet indoors will also now be limited to Christmas Day only. The same will now be the case in Scotland, with the mainland being placed under the tightest restrictions from Boxing Day.
In Northern Ireland, mixing is also limited to one day, but this day is flexible between 23 and 27 December. In Wales, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced that the country would be placed under another lockdown from midnight on Saturday.
Archbishop Welby wrote on social media on Saturday afternoon: “Christmas is going to be different and difficult for so many. My prayers are with all those who are sad, afraid and suffering. But the message of Christmas remains the same: God is with us. Let’s do everything we can to share that love with others, even if we can’t be together.”
Later on Saturday, in a joint statement with the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church’s Covid recovery group, Archbishop Welby urged clerics and others who are shielding not to feel obliged to lead or attend worship, despite the exemption.
They write: “The news of fresh restrictions in many areas will be a bitter blow. For many people, it will mean spending Christmas Day alone. None of us has experienced a situation quite like it in our lifetimes. We note the rise in infections and hospitalisations with real concern. But we also know that there is real hope. We are nearer the end of this than the beginning, with a vaccine already being made available and treatments improving.”
In this crucial moment, the vulnerable must be protected, they continue. “We are grateful that, even in tier four, church buildings can be open this Christmas. But we urge everyone to take precautions and, especially for those in tier four, to be exceptionally careful.
“Even though attending public worship is permitted, many people may feel it is currently better they do not do so [News, 18 December]. Clergy and others who are shielding should certainly feel no compulsion. At this time of year — even this year — we celebrate the birth of Jesus with joy and hope. Jesus came to bring light that shines in the darkness. We need that light now and always.”
Many Church of England bishops also expressed sympathy on social media with families across the UK who were having to cancel their plans. The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Pete Wilcox, said: “Feeling profoundly sad tonight for all those who are now having to adjust hopes and expectations of Christmas at a time when they’d placed understandably great weight on that respite.”
The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said: “Holding in prayer all whose plans and hopes to see family at Christmas are in tatters tonight and all who are going into Tier 4 tomorrow. In the darkness and the waiting we will discover God with us in the beautiful truth of the Word made flesh.”
The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, said: “Praying for everyone affected by the latest announcement of further necessary restrictions over Christmas, especially those who are living alone or far from loved ones. Also continuing to pray for all those working in our hospitals caring for the most sick.”
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said on Sunday: “As well as those now facing Christmas alone, please spare a thought and prayer today for the many, NHS, police, clergy and others, who are working Christmas Day, for the benefit of others, and had planned their Christmas bubbles for some other day.”
Others, like the Archbishop, said that Christmas could not be cancelled, and the good news of Christ’s birth remained. The Bishop of Kensington, the Rt Revd Graham Tomlin, wrote: “It will be hard for many not being able to see family or facing the prospect of being alone at Christmas. But it’s just one year. We hold back to protect vulnerable friends and neighbours. Remember Christmas isn’t cancelled — we just need to celebrate it differently.”