A ban on daily church services during the second coronavirus lockdown has been branded as "arbitrary and unfair" by Scotland's Catholic Bishops.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insisted the move was “essential” to help try to bring the new, faster-spreading strain of Covid-19 under control - but the Bishops have responded with the claim that the UK Government's decision to allow churches and other places of worship to stay open in England showed the “essential contribution” these make to people’s “spiritual welfare”.

The church leaders reacted with “dismay and confusion” after the First Minister, announcing a second lockdown for mainland Scotland, said places of worship could only remain open for weddings or funerals – where numbers must be limited – and for broadcasting services.

Speaking at her regular coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon accepted the move would be “very distressing” for many people.

She added: “I know people in faith communities take great comfort from collective worship, this is a particularly hard restriction to bear.

“But we do deem it essential at the moment to help us with that overall task of getting the virus back under control.

“We will not keep these restrictions in place for any longer than necessary.”

The First Minister made the comments as Scotland’s Catholic Bishops said they would co-operate with and support the Government in “its efforts in protecting the common good”.

Churches and other religious centres were closed in the initial Covid-19 lockdown but reopened as restrictions were eased, with measures put in place to try to curb the spread of the virus, including limits on congregation numbers.

With such steps having been taken, the Bishops said they were “perplexed by the decision” to include routine services in the new lockdown.

HeraldScotland: Parishioners wearing face masks bless themselves at the end of mass (Liam McBurney/PA)Parishioners wearing face masks bless themselves at the end of mass (Liam McBurney/PA)

“The stringent measures taken since last March to ensure public safety in our churches have been effective,” they insisted.

“No evidence has been forthcoming to justify the inclusion of places of worship as sources of infection.

“Without such scientific evidence these restrictions will appear to Catholics to be arbitrary and unfair.

“Moreover, a significant number of other sectors similarly restricted last March alongside public worship – such as construction, manufacturing and elite sports – have now been left free to continue in operation.”

They added: “We also note that, in England, the essential contribution of public worship to the spiritual welfare of all citizens during this crisis has now been endorsed by the decision not to close places of worship while the Scottish Government has apparently retreated from this view, causing dismay and confusion.”

They insisted being able to take part in public worship was a “human right” as they stressed its “spiritual, social and psychological benefits”, saying these must be taken into account by ministers.

Ms Sturgeon accepted “these are horrible decisions and I don’t expect any person of faith to be happy about this”.

She appealed to people to “understand, even if they do it reluctantly, that none of this is being done lightly”.

The First Minister insisted: “I have no interest in closing anywhere it is not necessary to do.

“Yes, this is one of the points of difference between Scotland and the UK, but so too is the fact that we have decided to act much earlier in the curve of this wave of the pandemic to get it under control.

“We are trying to act as cautiously as we can at the moment to stop this situation deteriorating any further.

“This virus transmits when people come together, therefore we have to reduce as far as possible the places where people are coming together.

“That does involve really difficult things, including on places of worship. It is about taking away as many opportunities as possible for the virus to spread from one person to another.”