Coronavirus has disrupted everything.
Public bodies of all kinds have had to adapt rapidly to the new circumstances caused by the spread of COVID19. Some changes will be reversed as soon as it is safe to do so, but others may remain in some form. The crisis has made everyone look again at working practices.
The courts are a case in point. There were no jury trials in South Yorkshire between the end of March and the end of June. This is because social distancing made it almost impossible to hold a trial in the existing Crown Court. The building has had to be adapted by using more court rooms – 2 or 3 – for each trial. It’s not just the court room itself. An assembly room is needed that can accommodate enough potential jurors, 2 metres apart, from which twelve can be drawn for a trial. When the trial gets under way, the twelve jury members will need to be seated 2 metres apart while they hear the case and 2 metres apart in the jury room as they deliberate. There have to be ways of ensuring social distancing when people move around the court building, hygiene and distancing when they go to the toilets, and so on. The more defendants there are, the more barristers, the trickier it all becomes.
But some changes have proved interesting. Solicitors now speak to their clients in the custody suites by phone. Some remand hearings have been held remotely, using video links to custody suites. The judges and court administrators, like all of us, as they think about the changes that have been forced upon them, will also be thinking about which of them could become permanent features.
Last week the Recorder of Sheffield, HHJ Jeremy Richardson QC, spoke – remotely, of course – to the Local Criminal Justice Board, which I chair. (This brings together representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, the police, probation, prisons, youth offending teams, and so on.) He talked about some of these changes. But he ended by saying how more remote working is making us all very tired. And it is true.
The ‘normal’ working day is broken up in all sorts of ways, small and large. We go to the kitchen to make tea or coffee, and have a brief chat with someone as we pass their desk. We leave a building and travel to a meeting elsewhere. But remote working means we fit in more meetings in a day, often back to back or move swiftly from one to another, never leaving the table we use as the office at home. And because we are not seeing each other for those informal and impromptu chats, we send emails, more emails.
The modern technology that was to save us from so much drudgery – and it does – has nevertheless with the virus taken us back to the nineteenth century: we are once again slaves to machines.
The police noticed what was happening in care homes very early in the crisis, because they were being called out when there were deaths in them. Yet it seems to have taken a long time before the government acknowledged what was happening – older people were being discharged from hospitals into care homes to make beds available for coronavirus sufferers, but all too often they were themselves already infected, and then infected others.
But we also realised something else. Because the homes were often part of a chain of private care homes, when many deaths occurred at the same time in a home, and as it became impossible to bring new residents in, the businesses became unviable.
This is surely an area where, like the probation service, it really does not make sense to have it operated through the private sector. The business model is not resilient enough when a major crisis of this kind happens. This is not to make an ideological point, but simply to say that there are some services which really do need to be provided by the local state in the spirit of public service.
In other words, like the NHS.
Footnote on identity
At one time I taught in an Oxford theological college – preparing women and men for the Anglican priesthood. The class was discussing identity: who do I think I am? Towards the end of the session, one ordinand, called Aysha, said: ‘My mother was white, Irish, Protestant. My father was Muslim, Cypriot, Turkish. What does that make me?’
In the diverse country that is now the UK, that is a question that will be asked more and more.