The lockdown that many in the media and in the public had been demanding has finally come. Whilst this was perhaps inevitable, the clamour for such a lockdown and the general disregard shown toward the individual in the face of a pandemic suggests that we as citizens must all be careful from here on in.
It seems that there are two schools of thought on how to approach the coronavirus in the UK. One school of thought follows the Boris Johnson government line of thinking, which favours a steady increase in measures as the evidence and advice from scientific and medical advisors adapts and changes, whilst also reassuring people that the government views them as adults who can be responsible.
Then there is the second school of thought, which argues that we need more stringent measures to deal with coronavirus. To do this, they argue we have to adopt the measures that countries such as Italy, Spain and France have taken to ensure effective resistance to the virus.
Boris Johnson was understandably reluctant to bring in similar measures, perhaps believing that the citizens of the United Kingdom are responsible people who will use their brains and do what is needed to protect themselves and their fellow citizens from harm.
The videos and images that emerged at the weekend of people congregating in large numbers in various parks and other locations, ignoring the government’s calls for social distancing, would not have sat well with the Prime Minister or made his message any easier to hear for many people.
Yet, it was the right one. People must feel as if they have some say over their lives and must be seen as adults capable of making rational decisions. If those who ignored the government’s social distancing messaging did so knowing full well the possible consequences, then no amount of societal chastising will change their minds.
Now, Boris has given into those in the media and the public who wanted more stringent and perhaps more authoritarian measures. First came the closures of pubs and other venues which effectively shut down nightlife within the UK and then came the full lockdown which forced non-essential businesses to close immediately and prevents people from leaving their homes other than to go to work if you are deemed a ‘key worker’, and from exercising more than once a day.
This might seem like a minor inconvenience, and something that should be worth sacrificing, and perhaps it is, but it seems to be the start of a potentially worrying trend. A finale of this trend is the new law which the government has introduced into Parliament, which would grant them vast and unprecedented powers to handle the crisis.
The powers would enable the government to not only give the police the ability to disperse gatherings and fine people, but also detain anyone who might be infected, even if it is against their will. A measure that surely goes against common sense and perhaps even civil liberties, as surely the police should first let anyone suspected of being infected, get a test done to either confirm or deny their suspicions.
Why is this terrifying you might ask? The answer is relatively simple. Given the current climate, and the mass panic around the coronavirus, one must ask, will the government face any opposition to this bill? Yes, there was talk of a rebellion in the Commons over aspects of the bill, but as was evidenced on Tuesday, when the bill was passed through the Commons with all its proposals meeting approval, no political party will ever consider bringing bad optics on themselves by voting against it.
Despite government reassurances that the bill could be debated and voted on by Parliament every six months t, one gets the feeling that given the Conservative majority in the Commons, they should face little difficulties in getting the bill approved at every stage, and that the Lords being unelected would be hesitant to do something that could cause anger to turn on them from the public.
Reinforcing a point made by Paul Bryant, MP where he highlights that with the bill potentially standing for two years, the six-month period between votes would be in violation of the Civil Contingencies Act which requires new powers – such as the ones this bill would grant – to be presented for parliamentary approval within seven days and for said powers to last for just thirty days without renewal.
The timeframe suggested by the government does not even take into consideration the potential implications for a scenario where Parliament is not sitting due to the virus.
It is fair to say that recent developments, whilst showing a proactive government and one that has taken into consideration its citizens’ liberties, could very quickly get even more authoritarian, if it felt such a thing was necessary.
With discourse currently varying between silent indifference to demands for more authoritarianism, it seems reasonable to suggest that whilst we need to do what is necessary to deal with the virus, we must be careful with how far we push and egg on the government. For once we venture down this pathway, it will be incredibly hard to change course.