How much freedom should we give away in order to stay safe? While this well-rehearsed debate was previously relegated to discussions about seatbelts, smoking and speed restrictions, the impact of Covid-19 has made it far more serious. Despite hopes that restrictions around social interaction might be starting to lift after six months of global lockdown and isolation, it looks like the UK government is demanding that citizens sacrifice their freedom to protect against the virus once again. The ‘rule of six’, as well as regional lockdowns and spiralling rumours of curfews, ‘circuit breaks’ and ‘Covid snitches’ has meant that, for many of us, life doesn’t look like it’s going back to normal any time soon.
Are the new restrictions justified? The government is clearly concerned that new and more extensive rules are necessary to prevent the much-feared ‘second wave’. Health secretary Matt Hancock has claimed that there is an acceleration in the number of coronavirus cases in the past few weeks, with the number of people being admitted to hospital with the virus ‘doubling about every eight days’ based on ONS data.
But critics are keen to point out that the numbers are not always as bleak as they seem. Figures for daily deaths are between single to double digits across the whole of the UK, and rather than a nationwide picture, infection rates seem to be rising in specific localities. Some experts, like University of Oxford Professor Carl Heneghan, have been calling for the importance of scary statistics to be put in context. For example, in the week ending 4 September, all-cause mortality in England and Wales was actually 15.7 per cent below the five-year average, according to ONS data.
It is hard to know whether the virus is indeed posing a serious and continued threat, or whether the government’s approach is based on a precautionary principle defined by panic rather than planning. But one thing is for sure – new measures to ‘protect’ the public against the virus are being taken with little to no public consultation. The new regulations defining the ‘rule of six’ were published less than half an hour before they came into force. And despite growing evidence that the months of lockdown have decimated the economy, threatened jobs, damaged mental health and caused fatal chaos in other areas of healthcare – like cancer treatment – there is still little opportunity to question whether the government’s cure for the virus might be worse than the cause.
In the past six months, citizens have had their right to protest quashed, their free speech attacked (with restrictions on social media about alternative public-health messages) and their ability to ‘mingle’ made illegal. In any other situation, this would be unthinkable. Does living under a virus mean having to sacrifice our civil liberties? Is it right to push back on the idea that anyone who questions new restrictions is a ‘covidiot’ or even unsympathetic to the seriousness of the virus? Should we be worried about the effects of asking citizens to ‘snitch’ on each other in an already atomised and isolated public sphere? And does the government’s rush to implement ever-tighter rules on social interaction set a dangerous precedent – especially if dealing with pandemics becomes part of the ‘new normal’?
Picture by Linzi, via Flickr.
director, Big Brother Watch; co-author, Information Security for Journalists
criminal lawyer; director, Freedom Law Clinic; legal editor, spiked; author, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom
political commentator; SDP Brexit spokesman; MEP for the East of England 2014-2019; former political editor, Daily Express
ceo, Index on Censorship; former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North & Kidsgrove; former deputy director, HOPE not hate