25 March 2020

We must not let this crisis erode our basic liberties


A Prime Minister appears on every channel at primetime. He’s announcing a national lockdown to stop the spread of a deadly pandemic.

It feels like a dystopian movie plot. But the threat of this virus, and the steps being taken to prevent its spread, could not be more real.

Police will shortly have the power to fine those who leave home for non-essential purposes or congregate in groups of more than two. The authorities will also be able to detain and isolate anyone for any amount of time. They will be able to forcibly take biological samples. Large scale events, including political rallies and strikes, can be dispersed. Surveillance powers have been extended and protections under mental health laws weakened. The state will even be able to force cremations. These measures were originally set to last for two years without review, but are now limited to six months.

It is no exaggeration to say these are the most extreme powers ever used against citizens in peace-time Britain.

The steps the British government has taken are relatively moderate compared to France, where you now need a certificate to leave home for shopping, essential work, or exercise, which must be within one kilometre of your house and last less than an hour. There are 100,000 police assigned to enforce these laws. In Italy, outdoor exercise is effectively banned and public parks and gardens are closed. Non-essential production has also been shut down. Roadblocks prevent people from moving around the country.

Nor is this limited to Europe. In fact, following India’s 21-day ‘stay at home’ announcement, a third of the world’s population – 2.6 billion people – are now in some form of lockdown,

Some of the responses we’ve seen appear to have little to do with stopping the spread of Covid-19. In the French town of Aisne, the local government is banning the sale of alcohol, while in Latvia it’s online gambling that is getting the chop.

Altogether more concerning is that Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán will shortly have the power to overrule any existing law for an indefinite period of time. Even more Orwellian is a new offence that makes the spread of ‘false’ information punishable by law, with little clarity over who decides what is and isn’t false.

Then there’s the dramatic tightening of borders, particularly in Europe. The Schengen Area is now closed to all non-EU citizens, a dozen countries within the bloc have put in place border restrictions, Australia is now not letting her citizens leave their own country except in special circumstances, and in any case, flights everywhere are severely limited.

It may have been derided by some commentators, but Boris Johnson’s reluctance to implement such measures due to his “libertarian” instincts ought to be welcomed. We absolutely want our political leaders to hesitate before they lock down society for weeks, or even months. We don’t want to live in China, where they first hide the scale of the crisis and then take great pleasure in how harshly they can treat their own citizens.

Given the scale and severity of this outbreak, however, taking drastic action really is the only option — particularly considering our current lack of testing capacity. The UK appears to be about two weeks behind Italy, where hundreds of people are dying every single day.

The virus does not just kill the old and infirm – as if that would make it any more tolerable – it harms many who are young and healthy, both directly and by overwhelming healthcare systems. Nor is there a trade-off between ‘saving the economy’ and ‘saving lives’. The economy is dependent on our lives; hundreds of thousands of dead people is bad for the economy. The only option, for now, is shut down.

But there must be an end game. Draconian limitations on our life must be carefully scrutinised and come to an end as soon as practically possible. They must not stay in place more than is absolutely necessary.

The temptation of power-hungry bureaucrats and excessively cautious politicians will be to leave many restrictions in place for a long time, to never declare the emergency over. There is a particular danger in this case that a relatively small trickle of new cases means some powers are never withdrawn.

Make no mistake, these measures are very popular at the moment. Some 93% of British voters backed the Government’s announcements on Monday, according to a snap YouGov poll. Clearly, people are willing to accept extraordinary limitations on their liberty when they are scared.

But people’s patience is not limitless. Over the coming weeks, it will be important to understand precisely why this shutdown is necessary, what it is achieving and its costs to our economic activity and liberty. Political leaders should be explicit about the uncertainties, the assumptions and models that have guided their thinking.

We should also remember that those models are not sacrosanct. Just a few weeks ago one model suggested the UK should adopt a ‘herd immunity’ strategy; however, after updating assumptions about the severity and hospital pressure they speed up advice for social distancing.

Now, there’s no shame in changing advice when the evidence changes, but it does underline how much decision-makers are operating in the dark. Nor is it just a matter of ‘the science’. The world of human behaviour is extremely complex. It is impossible to fully predict how people will react to new measures. It is hard to know how a new virus will spread, or considering the lack of testing, how far it has already spread.

A new model produced by Oxford University researchers offers a more optimistic scenario than the dispiriting assessment from Imperial College, which has guided some of the Government’s recent shift in strategy. The Oxford model suggests Covid-19 has been spreading since at least mid-January and that as much as half of the UK population could have already been infected. If true, it would mean herd immunity is much more widespread than first thought. Should that finding be substantiated by forthcoming antibodies tests, there will be a very strong case for loosening the restrictions we’re currently living through.

Today may not be that day, but in the not too distant future we must begin demanding back our basic liberties. Draconian rules should continue for as long as is absolutely necessary, and not a nanosecond longer.

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Matthew Lesh is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.