Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
At the start of the pandemic, the Coronavirus Act passed through Parliament with little scrutiny. In less than a week, it had received royal assent, having passed through the House of Commons without a vote and the Lords without amendment. Concerns were raised at the time that this must not lead to the permanent diminishment of our freedoms – but the general consensus was that the government needed to be able to act fast to protect lives.
Now, ten months on, and faced with a new, more transmissible variant of the virus, a National Health Service under acute pressure, and the promise of vaccination-induced herd immunity, civil liberties have been placed firmly on the back burner (even by many libertarians) – and a renewed moralistic fervour is on full display from proponents of tighter restrictions, with many reasonable sceptics of lockdown branded “Covid-deniers”.
Many believe the debate is closed as to whether lockdown is a proportionate response – perhaps the remaining sceptics need to know when the battle is lost. But regardless of your position on this third lockdown, we would be foolish to close our eyes to the dangerous reality: the Government continues to exercise unprecedented powers, with negligible parliamentary scrutiny, and the only hope we can cling onto is the vague possibility this will all be over by the spring.
The vast majority of the public are holding up their end of the bargain – adhering to social distancing, wearing masks, working from home. Despite this, we continue to be treated as children, drip fed conflicting information on when the web of restrictions might be unravelled. Let us not forget that “Spring” does not officially end until June 20th.
Of course, there are many variables at play, but surely, we as citizens have a right to know where, after months of stop-start lockdown, the goalposts now are positioned. Will freedom be returned once the vulnerable have been vaccinated? Or perhaps once hospitals are running at a more manageable level? Or is the government leaning towards a zero-Covid approach, as one member of SAGE suggested?
Very few would argue that the government is not acting in what it believes to be the country’s best interest. Like much of the world, it has battled with lockdown measures, seeking to find the right balance between public health concerns, the economy and civil liberties. But as C.S. Lewis said, of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.
This is why it is precisely the wrong time for us to become complacent about freedom. It is clear that the measures put in place back in March have set a precedent for ever more insidious restrictions on our liberty – not least when it comes to the overzealous policing of minor infractions.
The Government’s decision to close travel corridors and tighten restrictions at our borders was the right course of action, though arguably brought in far, far too late. Few would consider the restriction of freedom of movement during a global pandemic an intolerable affront to civil liberties. But reports that ministers are considering plans to use GPS data and facial recognition to ensure new entrants to the country are adhering to isolation rules is chilling. Under the scheme, those who fail to comply within 20 minutes would be contacted by the police.
With a Conservative and, in many ways, liberal government in power, there may be a complacent belief that the government will indeed end these restrictions as soon as possible. It is, of course, unlikely in our democracy that authoritarianism will suddenly take hold.
However, as we’ve seen over the last year, the public are willing to accept restrictions on their freedom if they consider them to be for the greater good, at that point in time. This preference for security over freedom may well remain for many months to come. Only this week new polling revealed that more than three quarters of the public are now “comfortable with” curfews and 73 per cent are “comfortable with” the police challenging people to provide a valid reason for being outside their home.
The state acting proportionately and in accordance with due process is central to the idea of civil liberties. Abandoning these guardrails in an emergency that then lasts a year at least, sets an alarming precedent and could be weaponised for more sinister aims in the future. And there’s little hope of resistance from the party in opposition which has failed to question the curtailment of freedoms in any meaningful way.
Now, you may take the view better to be safe than sorry. But with police demanding extra powers from government, the education of millions of children disrupted (the consequences of which may be felt for years to come), elections set to be cancelled and the public left none the wiser as to when restrictions will be lifted, we may well regret dismissing so vocally the remaining sceptics who have played such an essential role in questioning government overreach up till now.