Bishop of Blackburn: covid provides chance to reset priorities, not just going ‘back to normal’

On 9th October 2020 the House of Lords debated the Government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Obligations of Hospitality Undertakings) (England) Regulations 2020. Alongside that it also debated a Motion from Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, “that this House regrets that the Regulations include further restrictions for the hospitality sector without introducing the additional measures which are needed to ensure (1) financial support for the businesses, and (2) the retention of the jobs of employees affected by the restrictions”. The Bishop of Blackburn spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am very exercised, as I imagine we all are, with the challenge of not just restrictions but possible shutdown and closure of different industries. Hospitality is but one: there are also entertainment and cinema, theatre, concerts and opera, aviation and travel, to name but a few. Those closures and threat of closures and the way they have been communicated are bringing grief, anxiety, debt and mental health issues to many lives and families, especially, I would say, in the north.

It is said that there is no solution to resolving the competing priorities of health and wealth, but I do not believe in no solutions. In recent years, a whole new way of living has evolved which is quite different from how it was even just a few years ago. I remember the time when if you wanted a coffee, you went back home; you did not go out. But not now. We have got used to going out for meals and coffee, used to the freedom of travel and foreign holidays and the pleasures of our entertainment industry. From a consumer’s point of view, none of these is essential. We can eat and make coffee at home and take sandwiches with us. We do not have to fly for a holiday. But these things have become normal.

May I take my life in my hands and propose an unpopular solution? A lot of talk of “the new normal” is going around—that life will not and cannot be as it was—yet that is what everybody seems to want: a return to how it was in early 2020. But how it was then was not as good as we try to make it out to be: our planet, facing increasing global warming; human well-being, facing problems of obesity and diet, and addiction to drugs and alcohol; huge inequality between rich and poor; growing dependence on food banks; and serious increases in mental health issues—noting that tomorrow is World Mental Health Day.

Covid has clouded our memories of how it was before. It could have been much better. We have a unique opportunity in this country and the world more widely to reset the priorities in our society to make it better for everyone. It is not going back to how it was but rebooting: putting our economy on a sounder footing; helping businesses to transition to the new; redeploying and retraining the workforce for jobs that are essential, such as social housebuilding and renewable energy projects; staffing our schools, boosting the farming industry and improving staffing levels in our NHS and care homes. In the challenge in front of us now, with the R rate over 1, let us resist the temptation to think that going back to how it was is the solution. Let us think of and deliver new ways that will be better for all.

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