LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A spokesman for the Diocese of Westminster insists Catholic churches are safe in the British capital after the Mayor of London called for the closure of places of worship in the city.

Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday declared a “major incident” over an “out of control” rise of COVID-19 cases in the city. According to Public Health England, the rate of infection in the capital is over 1,000 per 100,000 people.

The mayor has written to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking that places of worship be closed, and face masks be mandated outdoors in places where people congregate.

However, a spokesperson for Cardinal Vincent Nichols – the Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales – insists it’s not necessary to close churches.

“Our responsibility is to follow public health guidance, as set by central government, and make places of worship as safe as possible. This we have done, following the strict guidelines on the wearing of face masks, social distancing and consistent cleaning, and the latest judgment of central government is that our churches are safe,” the spokesperson said.

“Furthermore, the government recognizes that the regular practice of faith in God is a well-established source of personal resilience and dedicated service to those in need,” the statement continued.

“There is no evidence that Churches are places where infection is spreading. We will continue to abide by the public health guidance and work with government to ensure the continued safety of all who come to our churches for prayer and public worship,” the spokesperson said.

The UK has entered lockdown this week, with England and Scotland announcing the new restrictions on Monday. Scotland has banned public worship, but England has allowed it to continue as long as health and safety precautions are enforced. Northern Ireland announced new restrictions on Jan. 6, with churches voluntarily closing to public worship for a month.

Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary in Westminster, issued a letter on Friday explaining why churches in England should remain open.

“This decision is based on two factors: The recognition that our churches are safe, and that the service they offer is essential. The safety of our churches has been affirmed by Public Health England (PHE) in its current advice to the Government,” the bishop wrote.

“Our churches are making a significant contribution to the personal resilience and inner strength of people which is much needed at this time. Many are hubs from which essential support is offered especially to those most in need, extending well beyond the faith communities which use them. This includes the regular provision of food; the care of the homeless; and being a place of peace and reflection (which is safe) for many whose living conditions are very limited,” the letter continued.

“We recognize, too, that isolation is having a profound detrimental effect on people and that the role of churches in easing that isolation in ways which are safe and supportive has been recognized as a positive and beneficial contribution to the common good,” the bishop added.

Sherrington said these facts “will become more appreciated” as vaccinations increase in England.  as the program of vaccination increases. On Friday, the UK approved the Moderna vaccine for use in the country, following the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.

The bishop noted a “vital link between prayer and action” in faith-based social service activities, and said churches play an important role as “alarm and fear” increase during the pandemic.

“Our clergy will ensure that all are aware that there is no duty or responsibility to come to church and communicate to all there is no obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. They will review, in each local area, the provision offered by the church in order to ensure that the highest standards of safety are maintained,” the bishop wrote.

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