PLACES of worship are not required to close under a new national lockdown announced by the Prime Minister on Monday night. The lockdown, which will continue at least until February, temporarily replaces the previous four-tier system.
In a special address to the nation in response to rapidly rising infection rates, hospital admissions, and deaths, Boris Johnson said that no one was to leave their homes except under special circumstances, which include work that cannot be done domestically, exercise, legal matters, and childcare. As before, the vulnerable are advised to shield at home.
Both primary and secondary schools have been instructed to close until after the February half-term, and teachers are required to re-establish remote learning.
The Prime Minister repeated his message from the first lockdown in March last year, saying that people must “stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives”.
Unlike in the first lockdown, however, new guidance published shortly after the announcement states that public worship is exempt from the new rules, making no change from the tier 4 regulations, previously the most severe. “You can leave home to attend or visit a place of worship for communal worship, a funeral or event related to a death, a burial ground or a remembrance garden, or to attend a wedding ceremony.”
Weddings can be held, but only in exceptional circumstances (such as imminent death) with up to six people. (The figure does not include those conducting the wedding.) The limit on funerals remains at 30; the number permitted at a wake is no more than six. As before, face coverings are mandatory in all indoor settings, including places of worship.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said on Monday night: “The Prime Minister’s words tonight underline the severity of the situation for the country, as the virus continues to spread rapidly. At a time like this, the Church is here to offer comfort and spiritual support to everyone. We have a duty to care for each other, but particularly those who are vulnerable or who may be most at risk.
“The Government has chosen not to suspend public worship in England at this time, and we will continue to follow the guidance and ensure that churches remain as safe as possible. The Government guidance on the safe use of places of worship makes clear that those attending a place of worship must not mingle with anyone outside their household or support bubble.”
People may wish to continue to stay at home, and churches may choose not to open, she said. She encouraged clergy and others who were shielding to “take particular care and stay at home”.
A similar lockdown in Scotland, announced by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier on Monday instructed churches to close. Northern Ireland entered a six-week lockdown on 26 December, and plans to put its stay-at-home message into law. Places of worship remain open for general worship (numbers depend on individual risk assessments; meetings for anything other than worship fall under the 15-person limit), funerals and weddings (both up to 25 people), and private prayer.
Wales has also been in a national lockdown since 20 December, under which places of worship may open for general worship, funerals, weddings, baptisms, and private prayer. Limits on numbers are determined by the capacity of the building.
In his address, Mr Johnson insisted that there was “no doubt” that efforts in fighting the old variant of the virus were working and would continue to work. “But we now have a new strain of the virus, and it is frustrating and alarming to see the speed with which the new variant is spreading.”
Over the past few weeks, infections rates have soared to more than 50,000 a day, while deaths within 28 days of a positive test are nearing 1000 a day — significantly higher than the first peak in April.
Hospitals are struggling to cope with new admissions, which increased by one third this week, indicating that the harsher tier system introduced by the Government before Christmas was not adequate to control the new more infectious strain of the virus, which presented itself around September.
Bishop Mullally went on: “I would urge everyone in our churches to pray for those on the front line in our public services — the NHS and those working in social care, for schools and many others on whom we depend; and for parents and carers of children at this anxious and stressful time.
“There is hope. The vaccination programme is under way and, as Christians, we have a deeper hope in God that comforts us beyond fear itself. As we have been remembering this Christmas season, even in the midst of our darkest fears, that hope brings light.”