Wednesday 1 April 2020 6:34 am

We cannot let this lockdown eliminate our civil liberties

Sophie Khan is a solicitor-advocate at Sophie Khan & Co. Solicitors and Higher Court Advocates, a niche firm specialising in civil liberties and human rights law.

As we enter the second week of lockdown, there is already the possibility that social distancing measures could last until June, perhaps longer. 

Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England gave the stark warning to the nation on Sunday that: “we must not then suddenly revert to our normal way of living”.

I make no criticism of Dr Harries, who is clearly doing her best under impossible circumstances. But I am concerned that, during the daily briefings, the wider societal and financial consequences of an extended lockdown do not seem to have been considered.

This is no fault at all of the doctors and scientists advising the government, as their vocation is to “save lives”, at any cost. But the government decision to follow the doctor’s orders and make us all housebound is not without its own costs.

First, there is the increase in authoritarian policing. Although it is not a “crime” to drive miles away from where you live to exercise or walk your dog, you may find yourself tracked by a police drone — as happened to those who ventured out to Curbar Edge in Derbyshire last week.

 Derbyshire Police did not take any enforcement action against the unwary walkers, but questions were raised as to the appropriateness of the deployment of a drone. The official response by Derbyshire Police on Twitter was that the “drone was up for media purposes only, not for enforcement”, but it is worrying to see drone technology used by police in this way.

Then in Cheshire over the weekend, it was reported by Nantwich Police that officers had questioned the “essentialness” of a landscaping firm jet washing a driveway in Stapeley. Again, there was no enforcement action taken against either the landscaper or the homeowner, as no “crime” had been committed. So why did the police intrude?

Obviously, the policing issues now coming to the fore did not cross the minds of the medical and scientific advisers when they championed the slogan “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”. But this is exactly why the government must look again at the guidance to ensure it is fit for purpose, especially when other countries are not following suit.

Sweden and Japan are taking different approaches to social distancing, but the most glaring example is Belarus, where business continues as usual. President Alexander Lukashenko has made clear that Belarusians “do not suffer the same psychosis as those in western Europe”, and has no intention to order a lockdown.

That experts in other countries disagree about strict social distancing measures should make us question whether this lockdown could do more harm than good.

Those harms are very real. Destroying healthy businesses, starving the self-employed of working opportunities, letting the sick who are now self-isolating at home potentially die as they can no longer access the medical assistance they need, and enabling police officers to celebrate the eerie emptiness of our streets does not bode well with the British way of life.

Perhaps these short-term measures are necessary. But if we as a nation are to maintain our sense of Britishness, then instead of conforming to a new norm — which to an extent deprives us of our basic rights and liberties — we should be looking at ways to stay alive without damaging the fabric of our society.  

The government needs to call on a wider pool of expert specialists before drawing up a blueprint for the next three months, or more. That means economists and social scientists as well as doctors. The one-dimensional vision we have at present will cost more lives in the long term.

And if the government does intend to prolong the lockdown for another three months, the British people must be part of the decision-making process.  Unprecedented times do not mean that unprecedented steps can be taken without democratic involvement. The ultimate decision as to how we live our lives still remains with us.     

Main image credit: Getty

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