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Covid-19: Places of Worship

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the official guidance to address the Covid-19 pandemic issued following the Prime Minister’s remarks on Saturday 31 October, whether they will now produce the evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship in places of worship.

My Lords, we have come to a critical point in the fight against Covid-19. The R rate is above one across England, and the ONS estimates that an average of one in 100 people has the virus. To protect the NHS and get the R rate below one, we must limit our interaction with others. Therefore, with great regret, while places of worship will remain open for individual prayer, communal worship cannot take place at this time.

My Lords, my Question had, I thought, the merit of inviting a simple binary answer, yes or no, but that is not quite what it got. This Question is about evidence. Evidence matters to science. Clearly, my noble friend the Minister is not going to announce a reversal of government policy, but can he at least give an assurance to your Lordships’ House that if these measures are continued beyond 2 December or are reimposed in the future either nationally or locally, despite the many efforts to make places of worship Covid secure, that will not happen without the Government offering some evidence for these restrictions on acts of public worship being renewed or extended?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the focus on evidence. Following the meeting that I chaired on behalf of the Prime Minister of the Covid-19 places of worship task force, Public Health England is looking at the evidence around places of worship and proliferation of the virus. I am aware that a tremendous amount of effort has been put into ensuring that places of worship are Covid secure.

My Lords, I am glad to hear the Minister’s recognition that churches have acted diligently in making sure that things are safe. Over the last 10 weeks, I have either led or attended acts of worship in three different churches, and meticulous attention has been given to all aspects of proper behaviour in such circumstances. Methodists are even reduced to not singing our hymns: we are reduced to humming behind our masks or, indeed, some kind of Trappist silence. On behalf of the many elderly people for whom the act of worship is the only social activity they have from one week to another, when can their needs be taken seriously into account so that they can enjoy a sense of well-being, even in these difficult times?

My Lords, we recognise that this lockdown will be a very difficult period for people of faith too. The position is somewhat better than in the first lockdown, when places of worship were shut entirely. I note what the noble Lord has requested. We recognise that some significant events for all faiths will be taking place during this lockdown, and I am sure that this will be kept under review by the Government.

My Lords, the number of people suffering from mental illness and depression is rising during this pandemic. At such times, many people experience real spiritual hunger and wish for guidance. Where do they go if places of worship are closed? Worship and prayer are not a private matter; they feed the human spirit. It is that spiritual motivation that encourages people to support and work for the general good. As my noble friend said, churches and places of worship have become extremely Covid compliant. Can my noble friend the Minister recognise that and provide flexibility for Covid-compliant places of worship? When we come out of this pandemic, we will need people who have been able to gain strength from worship and prayer throughout.

My Lords, my noble friend will be pleased to know that the members of the places of worship task force have made that precise point to the Prime Minister: that public worship is Covid-19 secure; that it is essential to sustain our service; that it is necessary for social cohesion and connectedness; that it is important for the mental health of our nation; and that it is an essential sign of hope. Those points have been well made, but we understand that there is a difficult balance to be made, as we also need to ensure that we battle to contain the virus, whose prevalence is increasing. However, those points have been made to the Prime Minister.

Although it is true that churches are remaining open for private prayer, is it not important to recognise that the Christian faith is essentially a corporate activity? It is a gathering of the Lord’s people around the Lord’s table on the Lord’s day. Similarly, Islam is no less a communal religion. My experience has been exactly the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches that I have experienced have been absolutely meticulous. I was glad to hear that the task force is examining the evidence. Will the Minister give an assurance that, as soon as some evidence is available about churches’ impact, or lack of impact, on Covid-19, he will be able to report to this House?

My Lords, I am very happy to give that assurance. As soon as we have the specific evidence of the review by Public Health England, that will be made available to all.

My Lords, my noble friend has not given a single shred of evidence as to why churches should not be open for public worship. I want to put a specific point to him. On the morning of Sunday 8 November, we are planning a remembrance service in Lincoln Cathedral—an immense space where everybody can be properly socially distanced. Instead, the Government have come up with an imbecilic answer—that the veterans, all of whom are 90 and over, can stand in the cold and be rained on but they cannot go into a safe, socially distanced cathedral. This is a disgrace.

My Lords, I recognise that this is a difficult time for people of all faiths. Remembrance Sunday services are of course an important part of celebrating what generations before have done for this country, but they can take place at the Cenotaph in a Covid-secure way. I recognise the point that my noble friend makes but we should also recognise that British Hindus will not be able to celebrate their version of Christmas—Diwali—during this period, and there is also the birthday of Guru Nanak for British Sikhs. We understand that these are sacrifices but, as someone who, during the first lockdown, lost his mother, who was very much a believer, spent three days in hospital before she died and said her rosary every day, I understand what it means to have faith. On Sunday, for the first time, I was able to take my father, who survived, to the church where they worshipped every week. That was very difficult for me—he was very emotional—so I understand the point that my noble friend makes.

My Lords, will the Minister, if he has not done so already, read the letters to their congregations from the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, the most reverend John Wilson, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark? In times of great trouble, worry, hardship and national emergency, places of worship of all faiths offer beacons of light and comfort to many. The Minister has already heard the feelings from across the House about the points raised today; will he agree to talk to the Secretary of State and other ministerial colleagues to see what can be done to allow socially distanced worship to commence in some form as quickly as possible?

My Lords, I recognise that a difficult decision has been taken by this Government and we are bound by collective responsibility. However, I am very happy to make those representations on behalf of people of all faiths and none to ensure that the core mission of places of worship can be fulfilled at the earliest opportunity.

My Lords, I sympathise with my noble friend who in turn, as the House can tell, has enormous sympathy with the views expressed. I implore him to help colleagues and the Prime Minister understand the impact on mental well-being, the sense of belonging and the social capital of our nation. These are being eroded, and the sense of community that sometimes gets people out of bed in the morning has been put at risk. These places of worship have put in place so much protection: many are safer than your Lordships’ House. I hope that the Government might reconsider.

My Lords, my noble friend puts her point very eloquently. I understand the effort that places of worship have taken to make themselves Covid-secure for a whole range of activities, including the core important function of communal worship. Again, I will make every endeavour to ensure that the Government recognise that. I invoke the name of the Chief Rabbi, who told me that people of faith tend to live longer and have a better quality of life precisely because they converge in a communal way.

My Lords, is there not a grave danger that, in our increasingly secular society, too little account is taken of people’s religious sensibilities, when millions of people from a variety of faiths live in this country? Do we not underestimate the importance of people’s sacramental and spiritual needs, denial of which not only threatens the principle of religious freedom but jeopardises people’s personal well-being, as the Minister acknowledged? What other European countries have taken such draconian powers? Is Angela Merkel not right in saying that, as a matter of principle, she could not justify such infringements of private and personal rights as well as communal needs while keeping open schools and nurseries? Why should it be any different here, and when does he think he will be able to publish the evidence to which he referred?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, makes a very important point. We should look to international comparisons to understand how places of worship have played a part in the spiritual well-being of people while not accelerating the virus. We need the data on that and as soon as it is available in this country it will be published at the earliest opportunity; I have committed to that. I will write to him about international comparisons.

I too sympathise with my noble friend, who is obviously in an embarrassing position, but will he accept that we all worship what we value most, be it the God of love, the love of Mammon, or the power of the state? Does the fact that we are forbidden to worship God and encouraged to work in the economy but obliged to obey the rules of the state, even in the absence of any evidence, suggest that the Government put the state at the top of the list of things that they value?

My Lords, it is very difficult for me to hear such a question put so eloquently by someone whom I regard as a sort of childhood hero. Those who made this difficult decision feel that there can still be a form of communal worship, as many people of faith have gone through the experience of going to mass or a service in a mosque via Zoom or other technology. That shift has taken place. It is not the same, but even the service I went to was very limited in capacity but many more were participating remotely. That is available as we enter the second lockdown. I really pray that we learn to live with this virus in a way that does not impinge on people of faith.

My Lords, in the consideration of all this, was any thought given to the projection of possible virus during singing, as opposed to other parts of the service, and whether there was a need for special attention to be paid to that detail to enable these churches to again be open? Even if they have sufficient spacing, there is a danger that someone who already is a carrier has a projectile element in their voice and their breath going out, so this should be taken into account.

My Lords, singing remains a high-risk activity at this time, so there cannot be any congregational singing in any form. Professionals may still practise music or record music for broadcast from a place of worship during this period.

My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to the statement from Cardinal Vincent Nichols on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy. He said that,

“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 combating the virus.”

That is a very clear statement on behalf of all the Catholic bishops. The right honourable Sir Edward Leigh MP, the president of the Catholic Union—I declare an interest as a life member of that body—states in a letter to the Prime Minister:

“We have seen no evidence of people meeting for church services contributing to the spread of the virus in this country.”

He has, however, suggested that the Government, as an exception, could allow religious services as long as all those attending apply online beforehand. A number of churches are using this method. Are the Government prepared to move even an inch on this, because there has not been a single statement in this debate in favour of what they are doing?

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend said, and I point to the Prime Minister’s remarks in the other place. He said that this was a burden on people of faith, but he reminded everybody that this was only for 28 days. He offered the hope—the candle in the darkness—that, if we got this right, we would be able to go back to something much more like normal life before Christmas. The first day of Advent falls towards the end of this period; as we know, the period will be kept under review.