Simon Rushton By: Simon Rushton
Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
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30 Mar 2020 : Rights and privileges

As someone who has written previously about the tendency of emergency pandemic responses to tip into authoritarianism, with all manner of negative consequences for human rights and civil liberties, one of the most fascinating aspects for me of the COVID-19 crisis has been the public clamour for ever greater restrictions. Certainly in the UK – but from what I’ve read, the same seems to be true in many other countries around the world – public opinion has been ahead of the politicians on this, with numerous governments being criticised for their tardiness in declaring lockdowns. In the UK, the Johnson government, taking heavy flak for what was perceived as a blasé initial response, did eventually announce a lockdown. At the time of writing, we are allowed to leave the house only to shop for basic necessities and for one form of exercise a day, to be taken either alone or with others from our household. (At least, they are the rules for those of us who are not ‘key workers’).

Locally, there has been great enthusiasm for policing the lockdown rules. Our community Facebook group – Friends of Sheffield 11 – has not yet turned to vigilantism, but that feels like it’s only a matter of time. A typical post currently goes something like this:

OP: There are three boys kicking a football to each other in the park. I can’t see who they are from here, but I doubt they live together. PARENTS: do you know where your children are???!!!

COMMENTER 1: I don’t know any boys in S11 that have two brothers. They clearly don't live together. I can’t believe people round here are so irresponsible. Do they have no respect for the brave men and women working in our NHS??? [angry face] 

COMMENTER 2: Best ring the Police just to be safe, hun xx

As for the actual Police, they seem to be pretty enthusiastic about the new powers they’ve been given too. Derbyshire Police has erected roadblocks and used a drone to film and publicly shame people walking alone on remote Peak District footpaths. Lancashire Police boast that they handed out more than 120 on the spot fines last weekend for breaches of the lockdown rules. 

The human rights group Liberty has called the new legislation rushed through parliament on 25 March “the biggest restriction on our freedom in a generation.” The new powers are certainly wide-ranging, giving the government the right to close businesses, to more easily detain people with mental health conditions, to enforce social distancing, to detain individuals thought to pose a danger of spreading the virus, to cancel elections, and much, much more. The government has promised us that these powers will only be used “when strictly necessary”. Liberty’s Director, Martha Spurrier, said that “people may not realise … the extent of its powers, and how long they can be in place for. … [S]ome of the measures outlined in this legislation are entirely sensible, others are overbearing and, if left unchecked, could create more problems than they solve.” 

So far, such qualms don’t appear to be widely shared amongst the public. According to a poll published in the Sunday Telegraph, 86% of people said they were willing to sacrifice their human rights to help combat the pandemic (up from 72% a few days earlier).

All of this probably shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. History tells us that publics are often complicit in the removal of their own rights. The genuine fear and concern that COVID-19 has created makes this even more likely. The Police, meanwhile, have never been averse to being granted more powers. The danger in terms of political accountability, however, is clear – especially in the context of a government with a large majority and an opposition in tatters. 

What I haven’t seen discussed nearly enough so far is the fact that these emergency powers are likely to have far greater consequences for some than others. For many of us, provided we more-or-less comply with the lockdown rules, the new legislation won’t really be experienced as a forceful extension of state power. But for some groups it undoubtedly will be.  As always, this is likely to track social and economic inequalities. The destitute, the disabled, migrants, those with mental health problems, and people of colour are far more likely than me to experience the hard (even violent) edge of these emergency powers. Here in the leafy suburbs of S11, most of us will be safe enough, sitting in our houses and spying on each other out of the window.

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