LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Northern Ireland’s bishops say they “support the unequivocal message” from health officials that public gathering should be minimized due the COVID-19 pandemic and are suspending public celebrations of the Mass for at least one month.

“Following further briefing today by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, and in consultation with The Executive Office, we are very concerned at the current serious public health position in which Northern Ireland finds itself: With the extremely high level of transmission of the Covid-19 virus; the continuing escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care; the number of associated deaths; and, the increasingly unsustainable pressure on our healthcare staff. The clear message from health officials is that this situation is going to worsen significantly over the coming weeks,” the bishops said in a Jan. 7 statement.

The Catholic Church was joined by the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church, and Methodist Church in making the move. Almost all denominations in Ireland cover the entire island, and public worship has been legally suspended in the Republic of Ireland due to the upsurge in COVID-19 cases.

England and Scotland entered into lockdown on Monday night, with England allowing public worship, but Scotland closing churches except for online services, funerals, and small weddings.

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The Northern Ireland bishops said they “recognize the efforts of so many in our parishes who have been working to ensure that our gatherings for public worship are as safe as possible and we welcome the continuing engagement between the faith communities and the NI Executive which has led to consensus between us on the importance of people being able to gather in person for worship.”

“At this time, however, we acknowledge and support the unequivocal message from public health authorities that the movement and gathering of people should be minimized and that as many people as possible stay at home for the sake of health, life and the Common Good,” the statement continued.

Public liturgies will be discontinued from midnight on Jan. 7 until Feb. 6, although the bishops said this would be reviewed in late January.

During this period, marriages, funerals, and baptisms will be allowed. The bishops also said drive-in services could take place, subject to local regulations.

“We encourage parishes, where possible, to continue to broadcast the celebration of Mass – and other devotions and prayer services – online and on other media, knowing that faith and prayer can be a tremendous support to individuals and society during these difficult times,” the bishops said.

“We make this decision reluctantly, conscious that not being able to gather for public worship can cause pain for all the faithful, but in the hope that this limited period of sacrifice will be for the protection of life and health and for the greater good of all,” the statement continued.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he hoped that the top priority groups – including frontline medical personnel, care home residents, over 70s, and those “extremely” vulnerable to COVID-19 – would be vaccinated by mid-February.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome