I have been contacted by many constituents who are concerned about the new Covid lockdown and places of worship.

I completely understand the concern and anguish that the closure of churches and other places of worship is causing to many people for whom attending a service is of great comfort and support. I also know from many of the emails I’ve had from constituents, just how much the prospect of another lockdown is weighing on people’s minds and has implications for our mental health. As you may be aware, although communal services are not going to be allowed during the lockdown, churches can still be used for individual prayer, funerals or a related event for someone who has died.

I must confess that I am deeply uneasy about preventing people from attending church services, not least because the freedom to practice our faith is one of our most fundamental human rights, so I thought you would like to know that in responding to the debate on 4th November, the Health Secretary said this about the ban of church services: “I can tell the House that Ministers are talking to faith leaders to do everything we can to reach an accommodation as soon as possible. I understand the impact of this infringement on liberties…”

I know that questions have been asked about the extent to which attendance at church services may spread the virus. The science on all of this is imperfect and I don’t think we will ever get to understand the precise contribution of each activity to the pandemic. But a basic truth holds – namely that the more contacts we have in the course of a day, the greater the risk that the virus will be passed from one person to another and on to those we live with. Therefore, society must decide which contacts are going to be restricted while allowing certain activities – like children attending school – to continue. In the current circumstances where we are losing control of the virus, there is no option that will enable every part of our national life to be exempted from the lockdown.

Before the vote on the 4th of November, I attended a briefing for MPs. The essential justification, which the Government has accepted, is that unless we take this action to reduce the growth in infections and hopefully turn the curve down again then we will reach a point where the NHS is no longer able to provide services to all of us who need medical care. Back in the spring, a huge amount of ordinary NHS work and elective surgery was stopped in order to provide capacity in our hospitals for Covid patients. Over the summer and the autumn, hospitals have tried very hard to restore these services and they want to be able to keep them going because we all understand that focusing hospital capacity just on Covid patients to save lives may have the consequence of other people losing their lives because they don’t get the treatment or surgery they require.

This is a very difficult decision and the reason why I voted in favour of the lockdown is that I am persuaded that this is an essential step that we must take to protect the NHS and to save lives. You will also have no doubt seen that the same steps are being taken in many other countries where the second spike is well underway.

Having said all that, I look forward to religious services being able to resume as soon as possible not least because they mean so much to so many of my constituents.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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