St Paul’s Cathedral has closed its doors to the public for the first time since the Second World War – because of the anti-capitalist protest camped outside.
Dean of St Paul’s the Reverend Graeme Knowles said the decision to shut the cathedral was made with “heavy hearts” after a report by health and safety officials.
Hundreds of activists have been occupuing the area directly outside since Saturday, as part of a worldwide movement against austerity cuts and corporate greed, inspired by New York’s Occupy Wall Street protests.
Cathedral officials had allowed the protesters to set up on the western side of the building, after they were barred from the area outside the London Stock Exchange. Organisers had announced that thousands of people were due to attend a day of action tomorrow, swelling their numbers still further.
Officials were growing concerned as the camp grew bigger and more established, with food tents and a media area. And since it campsite went up, there’s been a sharp drop in takings at the church, with many tourists deterred from visiting.
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Local residents and businesses have donated around £4,000 to the protestors, along with food and wquipment, and they’ve been on good terms with the Cathedral authorities. But today the dean said the church would close to visitors after a service this afternoon – although he added that small gatherings, like a wedding with fewer than a hundred guests, would still be allowed to go ahead.
Mr Knowles said the move was “unprecedented” in modern times and said he had written an open letter to the protestors asking them to move on so that it can reopen as soon as possible.
“With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a very clear fire hazard. Then there is the public health aspect which indeed speaks for itself,” he said.
The dangers, he added, weren’t just to visitors and staff at the cathedral, but potentially to those camped outside. He’s asked the Registrar to implement ’emergency procedures’ to keep the church fit for purpose while it’s closed.
“The protest has now happened”, he said, “it has been legitimately heard, and we would now like to be able to have space back and use it as we should.”
Several hundred protestors held an impromptu meeting on the Cathedral steps to discuss the closure – but decided that they wouln’t be leaving the area ‘for the moment’ – some of them chanting “We should not go”.