State power still needs to be checked in a lockdown

Today we are living with extraordinary restrictions on our liberties. Ordinary freedoms, such as going for a walk in a park or meeting a friend, are no longer possible. The Coronavirus Bill going through parliament gives state agents unprecedented powers to detain and confine individuals, and to prohibit public events and gatherings.

Of course, we are facing an urgent public health situation and this means that things cannot carry on as before.

And yet it is more imperative than ever that state power and restrictions are targeted, necessary, open to public scrutiny, and not employed for a minute longer than necessary.

Because it is in a crisis that state power can be most easily extended, in ways that will remain after the crisis has receded.

Lockdown may be necessary for a certain period, but it should be done only regretfully and as a last resort. Lockdown effectively cancels all liberty of the person and society; it has a devastating effect on economic life, and in many cases on personal wellbeing. As one MP pointed out, the situation will very soon become intolerable for families living in crowded urban flats; she argued that provisions should be made so that people can use parks and outside space safely.

At present a ‘lockdown virus’ seems to be spreading around the world, with lockdown imposed in countries with relatively few coronavirus cases. Many imposed conditions go far beyond that necessary to public health, with French citizens having to fill in a form when they go out, and banned from walking in empty mountains or cycling on empty roads.

The Coronavirus Bill going through parliament lacks basic checks and assumes far more power than is necessary. The powers for closing down public gatherings lack the usual protections for political assemblies and union action. Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo has dubbed it a ‘power grab’, while Amnesty International has called for protective clauses to ensure that powers can only be used in a ‘proportionate and necessary‘ manner.

The current extension of state power could come all too naturally for some state agents, who are prone to see public gatherings and activities dangerous or criminal. Over the past five years, many councils have banned people from standing in groups, and others have banned activities ranging from ball games to cycling. The police habitually disperse people from public spaces – around 1000 people are prosecuted each year for violating a dispersal order – and councils have also assumed powers to ban citizens from public spaces for a period of 48 hours.

Yet the public is not just a problem to be consigned to their homes. More than 170,000 people signed up in response to the NHS call for volunteers, parish councils are organising food deliveries for the elderly or those self-isolating, and people are doing the shopping for their elderly neighbours. People are part of the solution, and their good will is essential to a successful response.

Coronavirus powers should be used in ways that are proportionate, targeted, temporary and strictly necessary. The use of these powers should be visible and subject to public scrutiny – we should be told how many people have been imprisoned, for example, and on what basis, and how many public gatherings have been shut down.

People should be given as much autonomy and quality of life as is compatible with public health, and normal life should be resumed as soon as possible.

And when it does, we need to ensure that this power grab is rolled back – and that ‘lockdown’ does not become a habitual technique or policy response to other problems.