Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has declared a “major incident” in response to spiralling numbers of Covid-19 infections in the Greater London area with the infection rate increasing to more than 1000 in 100,000.
He has written to the prime minister passing on requests from City Hall and London council leaders for the closure of places of worship, for greater financial support for Londoners who need to self-isolate and are not able to work, for daily vaccination data and for face masks to be worn routinely outside of the home, including in supermarket queues and other places outside that may be crowded.
Khan is concerned that hospitalisations in London grew by 27 per cent from 30 of December to 6 January, with 477 deaths. One in 30 people in the capital now has Covid.
This represents the single most serious level of infection and fatalities in London since the virus began. Mr Khan compared the situation to a war.
A major incident effectively represents a state of emergency, and in practice means a level of restrictions and mobilisation of resources even beyond that of the nationwide lockdown. London’s ambulance service is already relying on assistance from the firefighting service, and the mayor believes that London’s hospitals are on the point of being “overwhelmed”.
Speaking today Sadiq Khan warned: “Our heroic doctors, nurses and NHS staff are doing an amazing job, but with cases rising so rapidly, our hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically. We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point.
“If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die. Londoners continue to make huge sacrifices and I am today imploring them to please stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary for you to leave. Stay at home to protect yourself, your family, friends and other Londoners and to protect our NHS.”
The mayor lacks the power to enforce measures such as church closures himself but hopes his emergency action will prompt swift action from the government.
Speaking on LBC, Mr Khan said: “I’ve never been more concerned than I am now…it’s a crisis on steroids in relation to the urgent help we need, some of it cost nothing, it means the government being brave and taking action, closing down places of collective worship, saying that people must wear a face-mask in crowded places; additional financial support…accelerating the roll-out of the vaccine in those parts of London where the virus spread the fastest means we don’t see the NHS runs out of bed as the virus spreads so it’s really important and I couldn’t be clearer we’ve declared a major incident because the virus is out of control and we’re at risk of the NHS over the course of the next couple of weeks if the virus continues to spread, of running out of beds.”
Mr Khan also emphasised that the emergency measures would allow him to pool resources across London’s government services, and promised that Nightingale hospitals would be opening within the next few days, giving the NHS much-needed capacity.
Following expert medical advice the temporary hospitals, which lack the resources to respond to the potentially complex needs of those with severe Covid symptoms, will be exclusively treating non-Covid patients currently rehabilitating from illnesses and surgeries. The mayor also called for the vaccine to be distributed with greater urgency, suggesting that it could be dispensed 24 hours a day.
A spokesman for the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, told The Tablet today: “Our responsibility is to follow public health guidance, as set by central government, and make places of worship as safe as possible. This we have done, following the strict guidelines on the wearing of face masks, social distancing and consistent cleaning, and the latest judgment of central government is that our churches are safe. Furthermore, the government recognises that the regular practice of faith in God is a well-established source of personal resilience and dedicated service to those in need.
“There is no evidence that Churches are places where infection is spreading. We will continue to abide by the public health guidance and work with government to ensure the continued safety of all who come to our churches for prayer and public worship.”
Bishop John Sherrington of the Westminster archdiocese defended the decision to keep churches open. He said: “We are aware that questions are being asked as to why churches remain open during this national lockdown. We are also aware that many local authorities are calling for places of worship to close. We wish to respond to these concerns.
“Churches are allowed to open for prayer and communal worship at this time according to the provision of the most recent national legislation and Government guidance. This decision is based on two factors: the recognition that our churches are safe, and that the service they offer is essential.”
He said the safety of our churches had been affirmed by Public Health England.
“Our churches are making a significant contribution to the personal resilience and inner strength of people which is much needed at this time. Many are hubs from which essential support is offered especially to those most in need, extending well beyond the faith communities which use them. This includes the regular provision of food; the care of the homeless; and being a place of peace and reflection (which is safe) for many whose living conditions are very limited. This will become more appreciated as the programme of vaccination increases. The vital link between prayer and action is important to maintain this service.
“At this phase of the pandemic, which is causing alarm and fear, our churches will exercise their role with increased diligence to ensure continuing safety and service.”