Almost a year ago, with the full impact of the pandemic becoming evident, the human rights barrister Adam Wagner warned that it might lead to a suspension of human rights as a kind of “peacetime nicety”. This would be a mistake, he argued: the human rights system was developed precisely as a set of checks and balances, because societies tend to turn to illiberal measures in times of crisis.
Many of the restrictions adopted by governments over the last 12 months – which would previously have seemed extraordinary and draconian – have been necessary. As Mr Wagner noted, responding to Covid means balancing rights, including, of course, the right to life. Yet the decisions that states make can no longer be regarded as emergency measures; leaders and the public now understand that we are in this for the long haul. It is also evident that some governments have gone much too far. A new report from the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, based in Germany, suggests that the pandemic has played an important part in weakening democracy across the continent, not only due to the curtailment of freedoms, but also through the use of fast track procedures for new laws, limiting oversight. In eastern Europe – notably in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia – it has provided cover for power grabs, used as a pretext for further eroding democratic standards.
The UK government cannot fairly be accused of exploiting the crisis in this manner. But it has been allowed to dodge proper parliamentary scrutiny, in a way that breeds bad decisions, bad government and ultimately corruption. Coronavirus restrictions are necessary; but concerns about how they are framed and imposed are not and should not be the preserve of libertarian zealots and Covid deniers. Hotel quarantine is a sensible policy, but the legislation for it should not have been published at the 11th hour.
The danger is threefold: that governments assert more authority over our behaviour, that citizens are too distracted or tired to notice, and that our very sense of what controls over daily life are reasonable or unreasonable has shifted. It is in this context, perhaps, that alarming new provisions on protest in the portmanteau police, crime, sentencing and courts bill have received little attention. They give police new powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a “significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to parliament” – including setting conditions on the duration of protests, maximum noise levels and locations. As the Good Law Project noted: “The very purpose of the right to protest is to enable people to register their profound unhappiness or strength of feeling in a way which compels the state to respond. To legislate so that right cannot have any impact is to legislate it out of meaningful existence.”
The bill will also increase the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial from three months to 10 years. What looks like a hysterical overreaction to a non-phenomenon is in reality a cynical nod to those fomenting a culture war. Both aspects of the legislation are disturbing, unnecessary and should be removed before they become statute.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic continues, we are faced with new challenges, such as whether and how proof of vaccination might be stored, shared or demanded. Difficult decisions must be made with proper time and scrutiny. Our choices now will have longer-term implications for the boundaries between the state and the individual. The damage Covid has done to our lives should not be compounded by unnecessary damage to our freedoms.