Bishop of Manchester calls on Government to improve its messaging on coronavirus regulations

On 25th September 2020 the House of Lords debated the Government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gatherings) (North of England) Regulations 2020. The Bishop of Manchester, Rt Revd David Walker, spoke in the debate, stressing the need to learn from the mistakes of announcements about previous Regulations, which had been misleading to those local communities affected.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester [V]: My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register, as chair of Operation Talla, the independent ethics panel.

I speak in respect of those regulations imposed on Greater Manchester and other areas which came into effect in early August. I entirely support the practice of focusing restrictions on those geographical areas and types of gathering that are disproportionately driving levels of coronavirus infection. Furthermore, along with many other local leaders in my areas, I believe that the restrictions imposed in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gathering) (North of England) Regulations 2020 (No. 828) were proportionate to the risks identified at the time. I thank the Government for introducing them.

However, I have serious reservations about the process leading up to these regulations coming into effect. In a statement made just after 9 pm on Thursday 30 July, the Secretary of State gave a clear indication that the new measures would come into force at midnight. Specifically, he stated that the restrictions would come as a blow to those intending to mark the Muslim festival of Eid ul Adha the following day.

We can quibble about the distinctions between regulations, restrictions and rules, but the plain sense of the message and how it was received was that family gatherings planned with food already prepared would not be lawful the next day.

However urgently action may be required, the laws of this realm cannot be altered simply by a government Minister declaring it so. Change must follow regulations being laid before this House under the affirmative procedure. Only then can the public know what they must obey, and only then can our police enforce it.

Thankfully, subsequent announcements of forthcoming regulations have included start dates that offer a realistic chance of the necessary documents having been drafted and laid before us in time. Therefore, I ask for reassurances from the Minister to this House today that we will not see a repeat of the misleading messages given in the case of Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gathering) (North of England) Regulations 2020 (No. 828).

Lord Bethell (Con, Minister) [Extract]…The third learning, in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, has been on the use of local languages and cultural sensitivity. I completely recognise his points about the impact of bringing in some of these measures around Eid. I have held round tables with community groups in the north; I heard people’s concerns loud and clear. We thought that we were leaving the time of lockdowns; it was only when the data showing that infection rates were rising emerged that we had to apply the handbrake and do a sudden turn. We learned a lot about the bruising impact of that sudden decision and its impact on trust, and we have moved on.

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