Central Edinburgh under lockdown on Easter Saturday 2020. © kaysgeog, Fickr
The Coronavirus outbreak is having a profound impact on our personal and work lives. Like many countries around the world, UK has been placed under lockdown for more than four weeks now. Unlike some European countries who have declared a state of emergency under Article 15 of the European Convention on European Rights (ECHR) to deal with COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government has armed itself with the emergency powers through the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 outlining rules on business closures and movement restrictions. The Coronavirus Act 2020 increases the powers of the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings and to close educational establishments beyond those set out in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. This allows police to restrict, prohibit events and detain people who may be infectious to slow down the spread of the virus. It is also worth pointing out that while these powers may seem to impact on individual right to liberty and freedom of movement, they are ‘temporary’ in nature and specific to deal with the pandemic.
The Police is using its powers to issue fines to those who have ignored the ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions in breach of coronavirus lockdown rules. However, criticism has also emerged against the ‘overreach’ in use of virus lockdown powers. Recently, former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption warned that that excessive measures were in danger of turning Britain into a “police state” while criticising one force for using drone to film walkers in the Peak district. Using these powers judiciously and avoiding an overzealous response is crucial to build public confidence. Notwithstanding the calls for greater consistency and reissuance of new guidance, confusion created by different interpretation of official guidance by cabinet ministers during the lockdown has been quite unhelpful.
Public opinion remains divided between the fears of turning us into a “nation of little tyrants” and positive support for the current measures. The situation is further exacerbated by the mixed messages given by the government over the lockdown amidst very different approaches taken by other European countries for easing the lockdown.
The pandemic has raised important questions around individual freedom and role of the State to ‘curb’ the free movement and assembly of people even during a health emergency such as COVID-19. With the PM Johnson’s announcement to continue the lockdown after his return to work, the debate between ‘everlockers versus the liberators’ will only become more fiercer.
Paresh Wankhade is Professor of Leadership and Management, and Director of Research in the Business School at Edge Hill University.