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The lockdown sceptics, it seems, are in abeyance. Opportunistic media voices who made a habit of denying the necessity of restrictions and the severity of the pandemic are still here, but noticeably quieter. Only 16 MPs, split between the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, voted against the government’s latest measures. Bursts of dissent about restrictions and the truth of the virus itself will doubtless continue, as proved by the awful spectacle of those people outside London hospitals, seemingly dragged from the subterranean depths of social media into the everyday world, chanting “Covid is a hoax!” But with the crisis entering this new, frightening stage, the mood has inevitably changed.
At the same time, many things that ought to jangle our nerves are as clear now as they were in 2020. The Johnson government has an awful attitude to basic parliamentary scrutiny – and, in Priti Patel, a home secretary who draws on a deep well of authoritarianism and nastiness. Its current Covid regulations are so complicated that they are reckoned to stretch to just under 50,000 words, which makes any coherent understanding of them, let alone questions of enforcement, much more difficult than many people realise.
A few of the simpler rules are close to inexplicable, while others may have profound implications for civil liberties that could easily outlast this crisis. For example, though protests were allowed under previous regulations, subject to risk assessments and anti-Covid measures being put in place, any conventional demonstration is now effectively illegal. Lockdown rules may allow collective acts of religious worship, but being involved in organising other gatherings of more than 30 people invites a fixed penalty of £10,000. So far, this restriction has largely been applied to anti-lockdown protests, which has kept concerns about it to the fringes. But sooner or later, it may acquire a lot more political prominence.
One cultural aspect of the Covid era seems to be particularly pronounced: swingeing, judgmental attitudes towards anyone who might seem to be breaching the rules, usually made worse by an apparent refusal to understand just how impossible lockdown is for millions of people. There is a very modern tendency for issues to be understood in terms of caricatures, so that some people’s idea of the typical lockdown breaker might be a conspiracy theorist ranting about Bill Gates, or a reckless hedonist at an illegal rave.
But a more representative archetype might be a woman in low-paid work, confined with her family in a tiny flat, meeting a friend in order simply to stay halfway sane. Put another way, in a society as full of insecurity, poverty and mental illness as ours, some people will inevitably be forced to step outside the rules. It’s something that ought to be met with nuanced and sophisticated thinking rather than with the language of blame and crackdowns – which, in any case, always fall much harder on some parts of society than others.
And then there are the achingly predictable responses to this new phase of the crisis from certain sections of the police. Last year, the initial lockdown saw incidents of officers failing to distinguish between the law and mere guidance, the use of surveillance drones and roadblocks, and such breathtaking suggestions as shoppers’ trolleys being spot-checked for nonessential items. This time, there has been a noisy reaction to the case of Derbyshire police – who have form here – fining two women for driving five miles for a walk, and telling them their hot drinks constituted “a picnic” (a decision now being reviewed). From Bournemouth, footage emerged over the weekend of a woman complaining she was being arrested for “sitting on a bench”, and another being accused by police of the non-offence of leaving her home twice in a day, a transgression they said had been captured on film.
To no one’s great surprise, both Matt Hancock and Priti Patel seem to approve. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan police has announced that officers will be issuing penalties to people “not wearing masks where they should be and without good reason”, while people outside their homes can expect the police “to be more inquisitive as to why they see them out and about”. The police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, David Jamieson, wants officers to be able to gain entry to people’s homes if they are suspected of breaking Covid regulations.
The lack of alarm about these moves is remarkable. In May 2020, the civil rights pressure group Liberty published analysis of the thousands of fixed penalty notices that had been issued to people in England and Wales under Covid legislation. It showed that black and minority-ethnic people were 54% more likely to have been fined than those classified as white.
Last week, I spoke to Katrina Ffrench, a London-based campaigner who has done extensive work on stop and search, and is now the director of a new organisation called Unjust, focused on policing injustices. In 2020, she told me, she had seen plenty of evidence that the police “didn’t think young black men could be out buying milk, or being teachers or other key workers”. Black and brown people, she added, “needed to explain being out and about more than their white counterparts”. Now, her fears now seemed even greater: “There are people who haven’t seen their families for weeks, but they’ll have been stopped by the police three times. That doesn’t feel right.”
If the authorities have concerns about public compliance, the most effective approaches will not involve endless crackdowns, but action on basic facts that still scream out for attention. The predicament of homeless people – not only rough sleepers, but people forced to stay wherever they can – is a huge issue. This country’s miserable rates of statutory sick pay remain in place. Three million self-employed people have been denied the government help given to others in work, and are in the midst of a crisis of both economic security and mental health.
Meanwhile, the aspects of immigration legislation that ensure thousands of people have no recourse to public funds, and are thereby denied access to any social safety net, continue to ruin lives. If these things were at last addressed, we might find there is less need for clunky and punitive enforcement. With a little persuasion, the police might feel able to get back to tackling actual crime.
Running through all these things are basic human truths that the stridency of pro-lockdown posturing too often ignores. Civil liberties matter. It is in the nature of our humanity that people need at least some solace and support, and either the rules themselves or the way they are enforced must leave room for that. We also have to be vigilant about simple prejudice, and the warped ways that so many laws and regulations are enforced.
To understand these things does not make you a lockdown sceptic. It actually highlights something incontestable: that if the methods used to try and control Covid-19 were more reflective of social reality than the eternal British tendency to act tough, we might do a better job not just of managing this crisis, but finally putting it to rest.
Source: The Guardian
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