In a joint statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said the news of fresh restrictions in many areas will be a bitter blow.
“For many people, it will mean spending Christmas Day alone. None of us has experienced a situation quite like it in our lifetimes. We note the rise in infections and hospitalisations with real concern.
“But we also know that there is real hope. We are nearer the end of this than the beginning, with a vaccine already being made available and treatments improving.”
They continued: “We know that public worship – both in person and through remote means – has brought comfort, hope and inspiration to so many.
“So we are grateful that, even in tier 4, church buildings can be open this Christmas. But we urge everyone to take precautions and, especially for those in tier four, to be exceptionally careful.
“Even though attending public worship is permitted, many people may feel it is currently better they do not do so. Clergy and others who are shielding should certainly feel no compulsion.
“At this time of year – even this year – we celebrate the birth of Jesus with joy and hope. Jesus came to bring light that shines in the darkness. We need that light now and always.”
He said he was briefed yesterday on the latest data showing the virus spreading more rapidly in London, the South East and the East of England, areas already in tier 3, than had been expected.
“It appears this spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus, which we first learned about earlier this week,” he said.
He emphasised that although the new variant is passed on more easily, there is no evidence it causes more severe illness or higher mortality. He said it may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the old variant.
“We are learning more about this variant as we go. But we know enough already to be sure that we must act now,” he said.
Cabinet met at lunchtime to debate the best course of action.
Tier 4 will be broadly equivalent to the national restrictions which were in place in England in November.
This means people must stay at home, apart from limited exemptions. Non-essential retail, indoor gyms and leisure facilities, and personal care services must close. People must work from home if they can, but may travel to work if this is not possible, for example in the construction and manufacturing sectors.
People should not enter or leave tier 4 areas, and tier 4 residents must not stay overnight away from home. Individuals can only meet one person from another household in an outdoor public space.
“Unlike the November national restrictions, communal worship can continue to take place in tier 4 areas,” he added.
In addition, the government is asking everyone to stay local and not travel.
And regarding Christmas, he said: “It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.”
Tier 4 means that people cannot mix with anyone outside their own household at Christmas, though support bubbles will remain in place for those at particular risk of loneliness or isolation.
Across the rest of the country, the Christmas rules allowing up to three households to meet will now be limited to Christmas Day only, rather than the five days as previously set out.
As before, there will be no relaxation on 31 December, so people must not break the rules at New Year.
“I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren, and for families to be together. So I know how disappointing this will be, but we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science,” he said.
“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defence.”
He also emphasised the hope that the vaccine will eliminate the virus soon.
“Yes, Christmas this year will be very different, but we must be realistic. We are sacrificing our chance to see loved ones this Christmas, so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so we can see them at future Christmases.”