Bishop of Rochester calls for effective parliamentary scrutiny of coronavirus restrictions

On 28th September the House of Lords debated a motion “That this House takes note of the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 six months after the Act received Royal Assent.” The Bishop of Rochester, Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I too was pleased to take part in the debate in March and recall noble Lords arguing points that they might not normally argue in that debate. Already in this debate we have heard some interesting contributions. I, too, look forward to the three maiden speeches that we are to hear.

I sense that, with regard to restrictions on people and communities, the next six months may be rather more difficult than the last six months. At the outset there was some sense of shared responsibility, and a deep anxiety about the virulence of the virus led to a high degree of willingness to accept restrictions, even when the messaging about them was, shall we say, less than clear. In my own world, congregations have very largely and willingly sought to order their lives within the various guidelines, and some relished the challenge of going online and got very creative—but there have been costs.

For me, one of the greatest costs is the constraint placed on our living as social beings. Our relating to one another in myriad settings is part of who we are as human beings, and doing so from behind a mask and without proximity or touch is a diminishing of our humanity, not least—as already mentioned—in relation to those in care homes and other such settings. Social distancing may offer a degree of protection from physical ill health, but it is not conducive to human flourishing and well-being in a broader sense. The longer these relational privations last, the more difficult it will become, in all sorts of ways.

Therefore, if restrictions are to continue or even, sadly, to be extended, it is essential that decisions about them be, in the first place, transparent. That includes effective parliamentary scrutiny and other elements of transparency. To echo the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, they need to be clear, not just in ​content but in rationale, if they are to be defensible and consistent, as many have said. If that is not the case, we risk a gradual falling away of willingness to live within the constraints—and we see that beginning, in various settings. We have seen comments from some of the students who have been interviewed, and so forth. Even in normally docile Church of England congregations, who socially distance happily during worship, I note that as they go out the door they are rather more nonconformist in their behaviour. I suspect that may be true in many other settings.

On the importance of relationships, I am very concerned—to change tack a little—about our prisons. I have some role and responsibility as bishop to Her Majesty’s prisons. Staff, including chaplains and many others, have been working heroically in all sorts of difficulties to maintain contact—that is, relationships—with those in prison. However, when work, education, rehabilitative programmes, religious worship, association and social visits are restricted, problems are being stored up, not least for mental well-being. That is not just for those in prison but also for their parents, partners, children and others. I think we will see some real difficulties emerging in future. I suggest strongly that, in that setting especially, serious and creative attention should be given to ways in which relationships can be sustained, not least because, as we all know, relationships are key to tackling reoffending.

A sense of tiredness is settling in. In many places, people initially engaged with a degree of energy and were trying to get things working well. We need to be wary of this tiredness, as well as the areas of more overt frustration in some people and places. Significant effort will be needed to get through these next six months in as good a way as possible. I go back to my trio, which is slightly different to that of the noble Lord, of transparency, clarity and consistency.

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