Posted by Richard Willet Posted on 4 September 2020

Liberty in lockdown

Is it time to release democracy from quarantine and resuscitate the rule of law?

When tyrannies take over it is because people volunteer their liberty voluntarily.” A bold pronouncement, but what we have come to expect from Lord Sumption, former Supreme Court judge, in his campaign to defend civil liberties under lockdown.

What could persuade people to volunteer their liberty? Fear, in a word. Emergency situations call for emergency measures. The government responded swiftly to a pandemic despite scant evidence of the infectiousness and severity of Covid-19. The regulations were nodded through parliament to applause rather than opposition. But have the UK’s emergency laws and regulations been proportionate, the least intrusive available, strictly necessary and based on scientific evidence?

Sumption was one of four lawyers and a civil rights campaigner to whom I talked who have been vocal in their opposition to the lockdown laws. All were outspoken about their concerns for the rule of law and democracy.

Lockdown was enforced under the Public Health Act, originally designed to immobilise and treat people who are infectious, not the entire population. What made Covid the first disease to merit quarantining an entire population of the healthy? It was feared that the NHS would be overwhelmed. Other countries had already locked down under emergency legislation, setting a strikingly authoritarian template, which surprisingly became the norm across the liberal democratic countries of Europe: “There is a herd instinct in governments and it gave them political cover,” Sumption told me. “Sometimes the best thing is to do nothing.”

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