LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s Catholic bishops have told the UK government they “have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship” necessary in the battle against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, as England prepares to enter its second coronavirus lockdown beginning Nov. 5.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the plan on Saturday evening.
Under the government’s proposals, which will be debated in Parliament on Nov. 2, all pubs, restaurants, gyms, non-essential shops and places of worship in England will close. However, unlike the previous lockdown in the spring, schools will remain open. The government will also allow funerals to take place. People are urged to work from home, holidays and nonessential travel are banned, and households are not allowed to mix during the lockdown.
The lockdown is scheduled to end on Dec. 2, but the government has warned it will be extended if the transmission rate for COVID-19 doesn’t drop significantly.
The decision to enter the lockdown was made after transmission rates increased even beyond the “worst case scenarios” predicted by the government. The UK has now seen over one million confirmed coronavirus cases, with 21,915 new cases recorded on Saturday. There are currently over 10,000 patients hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 978 people on ventilators.
Although supportive of the first March 23-Juy 4 lockdown, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales are questioning the government’s decision to close houses of worship a second time.
In a letter signed by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool – the president and vice president of the conference – the bishops said the new national lockdown in England will “bring hardship, distress and suffering to many.”
The bishops alluded to the work parishes across the country have done to ensure that public worship can be conducted safely, and the strong health and safety standards established by the Catholic Church in the country to limit the possibility of transmitting the virus.
“Our communities have done a great deal to make our churches safe places in which all have been able to gather in supervised and disciplined ways. It is thus a source of deep anguish now that the Government is requiring, once again, the cessation of public communal worship,” the bishops’ letter reads.
“Whilst we understand the many difficult decisions facing the government, we have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship, with all its human costs, a productive part of combatting the virus. We ask the government to produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship,” the bishops continue.
They also remind the members of Parliament that they “are in a position to require the government to publish the data that drives the decision to cease public worship under these restrictions.”
Nichols and McMahon said England’s faith communities have played a vital role in sustaining personal, spiritual and mental health and encouraging vital charitable activities, which support hundreds of thousands of people in all sections of the community, especially the most vulnerable.
“That critical service towards the common good of all is created and sustained by communal worship and prayer. Part of this selfless giving has been a strong ethic of responsibility in the way in which we have reopened our churches so that essential worship has been enabled,” the bishops’ letter continues.
“To counter the virus we will, as a society, need to make sustained sacrifices for months to come. In requiring this sacrifice, the government has a profound responsibility to show why it has taken particular decisions. Not doing so risks eroding the unity we need as we enter a most difficult period for our country,” the bishops add.
Under the United Kingdom’s devolved system of government, the UK government is only responsible for England’s COVID-19 response. Wales entered a two-week “circuit break” — which also closed churches — on Oct. 23. It is scheduled to end on Nov. 9. Scotland was scheduled to introduce a 5-level system of restrictions on Nov. 2, although no part of the country will be on the highest level. Northern Ireland entered a month-long “circuit break” on Oct. 16, although public liturgies have not been banned.
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