Towards the end of last week, someone I know posted a video and photograph on social media, taken one balmy afternoon on Hampstead Heath in north London. They showed a group of young people – who, by the look of them, had spent the day together at school or college. The images also featured three police officers, dispatched to disperse the gathering. In response, everyone had tried in vain to retreat into groups of six. “In the end they give up and all leave together,” ran the accompanying text. And that was that: a small, faintly absurd incident that highlighted the strange times in which we now live.
The underlying logic of England’s so-called rule of six is, I suppose, clear enough. But the sheer complexity of apparently simple regulations – not to mention the fact that they exempt grouse-shooting parties – shows something is clearly wrong. Given that schools are back, people are being encouraged to return to work and visiting restaurants and pubs is still held to be some kind of moral duty, the effectiveness of the new rule is obviously open to question.
And then there is the biggest issue of all: the fact that breaking the rule is a criminal offence. As the Hampstead incident suggests, some police officers are evidently seizing their chance to indulge in the kind of neurotic, unnecessary behaviour that first reared its head at the start of lockdown.As part of a quest for “stronger enforcement of the rules”, Boris Johnson has proposed local “Covid marshals” who will ensure any miscreants do as they are told. Now, there are to be fines of up to £10,000 for people judged to have breached self-isolation rules, and the police will be checking compliance in the “highest incidence areas” and “high-risk groups”, based on “local intelligence”.
Today, parliament’s joint committee on human rights publishes a report about the implications of the government’s response so far to the pandemic. Given the involvement of peers and MPs from all the main parties, the concerns it sets out are not as exacting as those of increasingly anxious civil liberties campaigners. But there are regular bursts of alarm. “It is unacceptable that many thousands of people are being fined in circumstances where … the lockdown regulations contain unclear and ambiguous language,” it says. There are references to “evidence that the police do not fully understand their powers”, and “a significant percentage of prosecutions” that have been shown to be wrongly charged.
Amid the polarised din of social media, worry about the rise of Covid authoritarianism might blur into the nonsense peddled by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. But rising concerns about power, the state and people’s basic rights clearly belong in the mainstream.
Compared with irate noise from people on the right, there is silence from the left on this subject. This is odd, given that so much of what is happening reflects Tory instincts as old as the hills. Take crime and policing minister, Kit Malthouse, advising Radio 4 listeners to shop anyone seen breaking the group of six rule (a prime example of “local intelligence”) or Priti Patel elegantly insisting that people talking to their friends on the way to a local park is “absolutely mingling”.
If you are old enough to recall police officers preventing miners reaching picket lines in the 1980s, or the organised violence that in those days often passed for law and order, you will have a vivid context in which to place a latter-day Tory administration so hugely increasing its reach. Even if you are not, such recent Conservative policies as Theresa May’s “Go Home” vans and advertising campaigns encouraging people to tell on supposed benefit cheats form part of the same story.
In between, of course, came the authoritarian tilt of the New Labour period – measures often sold to the public using the pretext of terrorism, which proved that the supposedly progressive side of British politics has always had its own draconian impulses. There has, perhaps, been an iron rule at work: that politicians of left or right will always try to acquire powers on the basis of real or invented crises, and then prove reluctant to give them up.
Much of current anxieties centre on the sprawling Coronavirus Act, passed with no meaningful scrutiny in March. At the end of this month it will return to the House of Commons for a six-monthly review that will result in a straight yes/no vote on whether to repeal the entirety of the legislation or keep it (there is talk of attempts to belatedly amend it, but they seem unlikely to amount to very much).
The legislation allows ministers to authorise no end of drastic moves, from much weaker oversight of government surveillance and sectioning powers under the Mental Health Act to the closure of the UK’s borders. Perhaps the most startling section – which Martha Spurrier, the director of the pressure group Liberty, calls “completely wild” – lays out how the police can be rapidly allowed to detain anyone deemed “potentially infectious”, without an upper time limit.
If most of these powers have so far not been activated, the nature of other new restrictions is already clear. These are formulated by ministers in secret, and come into force as a matter of diktat. In the case of the rule of six, only 30 minutes separated legislation being published and it coming into force: not for nothing does the joint committee’s report insist that “the government must consider whether a better balance could be struck between the flexibility of urgent legislation and the need for scrutiny by parliament”.
As to such laws’ practical effect, a whole array of statistics makes for grim reading, particularly as Covid rules are being further tightened. At the end of May, for instance, the Guardian reported that black, Asian and minority ethnic people in England were 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus rules than white people.
Worse still, too much of the government’s approach encourages the censorious, curtain-twitching attitudes that lurk in this country’s culture. At a time when people and places have to pull together, mutual suspicion is the opposite of what is required.
Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has given rise to an awful imbalance: the state increasing its power to sow mistrust and punish, while failing on the more nurturing and protective responsibilities that are a much better answer to the pandemic. The police have endless new powers, but it has taken more than six months for the government to offer half-decent financial help to poorer people who have to self-isolate. As lockdown spreads, the testing fiasco only seems to get worse. Give people practical help and clear guides for action and they are likely to do what’s required; hit them with rules that are often impossible to understand while threatening them with fines and encouraging them to snitch, and many will recoil. Put another way, if you combine incompetence and omnipotence, disaster is inevitable.
In Oldham in Greater Manchester, the Labour MP Jim McMahon recently identified an alarming disjunction: “We’ve had social restrictions for four weeks; [but] the infection rate has continued to rocket.” Lockdowns, clampdowns and the long arm of the law are not a sustainable answer to the crisis we face: more terrifyingly still, they point to a future in which power might decisively slip free of any meaningful constraints. There should be no questioning the awful reality of Covid-19, its threat to public health, or the fact that we should all be doing our bit. What we should be arguing about is whether bulldozing basic civil liberties is any kind of answer to the crisis, and where exactly that approach is already leading us.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist