Under cover of coronavirus, conservative government destroys fundamental freedoms | John Harris | Opinion

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TTowards the end of last week, someone I know posted a video and photo on social media, taken on a balmy afternoon in Hampstead Heath, north London. They showed a group of young people – who, in their eyes, had spent the day together at school or college. The images also showed three police officers, sent to disperse the rally. In response, everyone had tried unsuccessfully to withdraw in groups of six. “At the end of the day, they give up and all go together,” the accompanying text read. And that was it: a slightly absurd little incident that brought to light the strange times we live in now.The logic behind the so-called rule of six in England is, I guess, pretty clear. But the sheer complexity of the seemingly simple regulations – not to mention the fact that they exempt grouse hunting parties – makes it clear that something is wrong. Given that schools are back, people are encouraged to return to work, and visiting restaurants and pubs is still seen as a sort of moral duty, the effectiveness of the new rule is obviously questionable.

And then there is the biggest problem of all: the fact that breaking the rule is a criminal offense. As the Hampstead incident suggests, some police officers are obviously seizing their chance to engage in the kind of neurotic and unnecessary behavior that first arose at the start of the lockdown. Johnson has proposed local ‘Covid Marshals’ who will make sure all disbelievers do as they are told. Now there will be fines of up to £ 10,000 for those found to have violated self-isolation rules, and police will check for compliance in ‘high incidence areas’ and’ high groups. risk ”, based on“ local intelligence ”.

Today, the Parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee is releasing a report on the implications of the government’s response to the pandemic so far. Given the involvement of peers and MPs from all major parties, the concerns he exposes are not as demanding as those of increasingly anxious civil liberties activists. But there are regular bursts of alarm. “It is unacceptable that thousands of people are fined in circumstances where… foreclosure regulations contain unclear and ambiguous language,” he said. There are references to “evidence that the police do not fully understand their powers” ​​and “a significant percentage of prosecutions” that have been shown to have been charged in error.

Amid the polarized social media uproar, concern over the rise of Covid’s authoritarianism could blur into the nonsense peddled by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. But growing concerns about power, the state, and basic human rights are clearly in the mainstream.

Compared to the furious noise of people on the right, there is left-wing silence on this subject. It’s odd, considering so much of what’s going on reflects conservative instincts as old as the hills. Take the example of the Minister of Crime and Police, Kit Malthouse, who advises Radio 4 listeners to go shopping for anyone seen breaking the Group of Six rule (a prime example of “local intelligence”) or Priti Patel elegantly insisting that people talk to their friends on their way to a local. the park is “absolutely mixed”.

If you’re old enough to remember the police officers preventing minors from reaching the picket lines in the 1980s, or the organized violence that in those days was often passed off as law and order, you will have a living context in which to place a conservative administration of the last days. greatly increasing its reach. Even if you aren’t, recent conservative policies like Theresa May’s “Go Home” vans and ad campaigns encouraging people to tell supposed cheaters for profit are part of the same story.

In between, of course, came the authoritarian tilt of the New Labor era – measures often sold to the public under the pretext of terrorism, which proved that the supposedly progressive side of British politics always had its own impulses. draconian. Perhaps there was an iron rule at work: politicians on the left or on the right will always try to gain power on the basis of real or invented crises, and then be reluctant to give it up.

Much of the current anxieties centers on the sprawling coronavirus law, passed without full consideration in March. At the end of this month, it will return to the House of Commons for a biannual review that will result in a direct yes / no vote on whether to repeal all of the legislation or keep it (these are referred to as attempts to modify it, but it seems unlikely that they represent much).

The legislation allows ministers to authorize endless drastic measures, ranging from much weaker oversight of government oversight and sectioning powers under the Mental Health Act to shutting down UK borders. Perhaps the most surprising section – which Martha Spurrier, the director of the Liberty lobby group, describes as “completely savage” – explains how the police can be quickly authorized to detain anyone deemed “potentially contagious”, with no time limit. .

While most of these powers have so far not been activated, the nature of the other new restrictions is already clear. These are formulated in secret by ministers and come into force in the form of a diktat. In the case of the rule of six, only 30 minutes separate the publication of legislation and the entry into force: it is not for nothing that the report of the joint commission insists that “the government must examine whether a better balance could be found between the flexibility of urgent legislation. and the need for parliamentary scrutiny ”.

As for the practical effect of these laws, a whole range of statistics give rise to a grim reading, especially as the Covid rules are further tightened. At the end of May, for example, the Guardian reported that blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities in England were 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus rules than whites.

Worse yet, too much of the government’s approach encourages attitudes of censorship and ridicule that lurk in the culture of this country. In an age when people and places have to come together, mutual suspicion is the opposite of what is required.

Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has given rise to a terrible imbalance: the state is increasing its power to sow distrust and punish, while failing to more nurturing and protective responsibilities which are a much better response to the pandemic. The police have endless new powers, but it took more than six months for the government to deliver half-decent financial assistance to the poorest people who must self-isolate. As the lockdown spreads, the testing fiasco only gets worse. Give people practical help and clear action guides and they are likely to do what is necessary; hit them with rules that are often impossible to understand while threatening them with fines and encouraging them to snitch, and many will back down. In other words, if you combine incompetence and omnipotence, disaster is inevitable.

In Oldham, Greater Manchester, Labor MP Jim McMahon recently identified an alarming disjunction: “We have had social restrictions for four weeks; [but] the infection rate continued to skyrocket. Lockdowns, crackdowns and the long arm of the law are not a lasting response to the crisis we face: more terrifyingly, they point to a future in which power could decisively escape. any significant constraint. There is no questioning the terrible reality of Covid-19, its threat to public health or the fact that we should all be doing our part. What we should be asking ourselves is whether destroying fundamental civil liberties is a response to the crisis, and where exactly this approach is already taking us.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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