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Emma Revell is Head of Communications at the Institute for Economic Affairs.
Looking back through history at draconian legislation, it is tempting to think it could never happen now, or to marvel that previous generations had allowed a particular law to pass.
There are recent instances where clear violations of liberty have been met with resistance across the political divide. Conservatives and liberals have bristled at invasive polices that require individuals to hand over more than the minimum amount of personal information or that curtail our individual mobility. Principled opposition to ID cards or 90-day detention without charge stand out as bold examples.
But the limits on personal freedoms which come step by step, or under the guise of public protection, can be harder to resist.
In late March, the Government introduced wide-ranging restrictions designed to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Gone were family gatherings, leisure activities, non-essential shopping and, for many people, work.
It’s not to say some restrictions weren’t necessary. If Coronavirus cases overwhelmed the health service’s capacity to cope, scientists warned, it would lead to countless additional Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 fatalities. At the time as the lockdown was introduced, Ministers feared that, by failing to take extreme action, they would be signing the death warrant of thousands.
But it is important to acknowledge that these restrictions would be unbelievably authoritarian in normal times, it is possible some sit on the wrong side of the line now, and all of them need to repealed as soon as is reasonable. My colleague Christopher Snowdon has set out in detail the reasons why in a new paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, Liberty after the lockdown.
The purpose of the lockdown was to flatten the curve and reduce pressure on the NHS to a level at which it was able to cope. The number of people in hospital decreased by 13 per cent in the week to Saturday, and we are now “past the peak”. It could be argued that the strategy has been a success.
But noises from Whitehall should give people cause for concern: there is a risk the goalposts are being moved. Lockdown was never supposed to prevent a second wave, something most epidemiologists – and historical precedent (see recent IEA report Going Viral) – suggest is inevitable.
A lockdown that could prevent a second wave would need to remain in place until a vaccine could be rolled out on large scale – something that could be years away. Living under the current conditions for a sustained period of time should be viewed as inconceivable by public and politicians alike.
Restrictions on gatherings of more than two people outside the home seem sensible when faced with a virus, spread by close contact with someone who could be infectious but show no symptoms. But once we can manage the virus and the health system has capacity to cope, those restrictions are something else. They are a ban on the right to protest; an integral part of our democracy and something we cannot lose. Extinction Rebellion demonstrations may have been an inconvenience for commuters, but we cannot deny the right to peaceful protest.
The idea we may lose that for at least two years should alarm any democrat.
Moreover, they are a barrier to community cohesion. Yes, we have seen heart-warming examples of streets pulling together to care for and support their neighbours – collecting prescriptions, delivering shopping, and checking in on those living alone – but most people would prefer to see their loved ones.
A part-time photographer living on my road is documenting the inhabitants of the estate to show how usually distant central Londoners lived during this uncertain time, but this is inferior to seeing family or friends, regardless. The fabric of society relies on strong bonds and prohibiting the public from seeing children, parents, grandparents or partners for months on end risks a fragmentation, isolation and loneliness that should worry us all.
It can be difficult to defend freedom, especially when people are pointing to the apparent upsides of restriction. The first weeks of lockdown showed a 28 per cent fall in crime and a drop in pollution. But that should not come as a surprise: burglaries are somewhat trickier when people are in their homes all day, emissions are naturally lower when economic activity has come to a juddering halt. None of this should be used to justify a permanent restriction of liberty. After all, limiting people’s ability to make bad choices also limits their ability to make good ones.
Furthermore, the reported upsides of lockdown are more than outweighed by the downsides – not only the lack of freedom, but the impact on mental health, the increase in domestic abuse, and the almost incalculable economic damage that will come the longer the lockdown restrictions continue.
This situation has shown us how fragile freedom is and how hard we must fight to protect it. Even as late as mid-February, the idea that we would willingly relinquish our civil liberties to save others and protect the NHS – the closest thing we have to a national religion – would have been difficult to comprehend. How quickly times change.
Many commentators suspected the British public would be resistant to lockdown measures, and yet the issue now is perhaps we have been too compliant; too willing to stay inside and give up our freedom, and that we may struggle to reclaim it.
If civil society, politicians, and even those on social media don’t come together and push back against encroaching regulation, there is a very real risk that coercive policies can – and will – overstay their welcome.