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Shutting out veterans on Remembrance Sunday due to church service ban is imbecilic, Government told

by Press Association

Forcing elderly veterans to stand outside on Remembrance Sunday because of a lockdown ban on communal church worship has been branded "imbecilic".

Peers at Westminster highlighted steps already taken to make religious buildings safe, including social distancing, as they challenged the ban on holding services when the new coronavirus restrictions for England come into force on 5th November.

Several members in the House of Lords raised concerns over the impact of the move on people's mental health, pointing out that for many elderly people attending church was their only regular social activity.

According to Government guidance, places of worship will be closed from Thursday, unless they are being used for funerals, individual prayer, formal childcare or other essential voluntary and public services such as support groups.

Exemptions will also be made for churches that are broadcasting acts of worship.

Defending the rules, Communities Minister Lord Greenhalgh said: "We have come to a critical point in the fight against Covid-19."

Stressing the need to "limit our interaction with others", he said: "Therefore, with great regret, while places of worship will remain open for individual prayer, communal worship cannot take place at this time."

Pressing the minister, Tory peer Lord Cormack said he had "not given a single shred of evidence as to why churches should not be open for public worship".

He said a remembrance service had been planned for this Sunday in Lincoln Cathedral, which was "an immense space where everybody can be properly socially distanced".

Lord Cormack added: "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."

Lord Greenhalgh said: "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."

He added: "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 he makes."

The former bishop of Oxford and independent crossbencher Lord Harries of Pentregarth said: "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."

He said churches had been "absolutely meticulous" in ensuing the buildings were safe and the rules were followed.

Labour peer Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a Methodist minister, said: "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 wellbeing, even in these difficult times?"

Lord Greenhalgh said: "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.

"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.

Tory peer Baroness Altmann warned of the impact on people's mental health, arguing that "the sense of community that sometimes gets people out of bed in the morning has been put at risk".

She said: "These places of worship have put in place so much protection: many are safer than the House of Lords. I hope that the Government might reconsider."

The minister said: 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."

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