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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Of course we must stop coronavirus, but not at the cost of becoming a police state

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Police stop motorists to check their travel is 'essential'
Police stop motorists to check their travel is ‘essential’ CREDIT: OLI SCARFF/ AFP

I was delighted when the Government performed its dramatic U-turn a few weeks ago and moved away from a herd immunity strategy to outright prevention of the rapid spread of Covid-19. To have allowed 500,000 people to die while watching the NHS being overwhelmed would have been immoral.

But is this new plan being enforced too drastically? We have stringent rules affecting the most basic routines of daily life and a police force with full discretionary powers. Are the Government and police trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus or put the nation under house arrest?

Over the past two weeks I have been particularly careful about human contact. As a smoker of over 40 years’ standing, I know I am at risk of contracting pneumonia. The concept of social distancing at this time makes perfect sense to me and I will do my utmost to adhere to it for everybody’s sake. I will not, however, live under home detention and be told – regardless of whether I come into contact with another human being – that I can leave my property only once per day.

During my LBC show on Sunday I mentioned that I had been out walking eight times in the previous five days. According to some on social media, it was as though I were a suicide bomber. I am fortunate to live in a rural area with a low population. During this crisis, few cars drive through it. The footpaths through the woods and fields are devoid of people, though I do see many lycra-clad cyclists going along the country lanes. Yet if I lived in urban Sheffield and chose to drive a few miles to the Peak District to walk my dog – at a safe distance from others, of course – what would be wrong with that? The answer, according to some police forces, is a lot.

It is clear that the emergency regulations which came into force a few days ago have gone to some people’s heads. The use of drones to target dog walkers and people strolling along beaches in Cornwall is deeply worrying. Worse still are the hotlines that have been set up encouraging people to tell on their neighbours if they leave the house more than once a day. This is madness. It is un-British and the public will turn against the authorities if this trend continues.

Apart from anything else, there is a huge irony at the heart of this situation. As officers from Derbyshire Constabulary put black dye into the Blue Lagoon beauty spot to dissuade visitors from flocking there, planes from New York, Italy and China were landing at major UK airports.

Every day thousands of people continue to come here from overseas. They do not have their temperature taken on arrival, let alone any effort being made to see if they might have Covid-19. They get onto public transport. No quarantine is required. They are simply advised to stay at home for the ensuing 14 days. Why are British citizens being treated with contempt by elements of our police force when the Government allows the potential daily importation of this disease?

I have always felt that if the state were given too much power it would abuse it. It does feel like this is happening. Consider the case of Labour MP Stephen Kinnock. He visited his father on his 78th birthday and sat a safe distance away from him. This was hardly irresponsible. Yet he earned a public reprimand from South Wales Police on the basis his actions did not constitute essential travel.

When you have a Government that has failed on its testing regime; has not managed to supply enough protective equipment to NHS staff; and at the same time has allowed the airports to remain as busy as ever, I would suggest that it needs to examine its priorities. Citizens must be able to exercise common sense.

Some in Government seem to be enjoying their new authority, incidentally. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove gave the impression of a man who positively relished announcing that new daily limits of 30 minutes for a jog and 60 minutes for a walk may be introduced. Doubtless his neighbours will have their stopwatches ready. 

I will continue being careful and will avoid unnecessary contact with others, but I refuse to respect statements such as Mr Gove’s, which risk losing all perspective and could even be counter-productive. If the authorities carry on down this road, mass civil disobedience could follow and the virus might even spread more widely as a result. In a national emergency, everyone wants to do their bit, but it is a two-way street. The Government must respect the people if the people are to respect the Government. 

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