Our legal and policy officer Mark Johnson writes in City AM today:
Despite the Prime Minister previously cautioning the “misery” that a second national lockdown would invariably cause, last week MPs voted for the imposition of new restrictions.
A difficult period looms. The new measures criminalise family meetings, deny individuals the freedom of assembly, prevent religious ceremonies from taking place, and give the police the power to impose hefty fines upon members of the public who are deemed to be in breach of the rules.
In an attempt to galvanise national unity, politicians throughout the crisis have lauded the “sacrifices made by the British people”. But where a sacrifice would imply the undertaking of a voluntary act of selflessness, the reality is that the government’s whole approach to compliance with its coronavirus restrictions has been based around coercion.
Cast your mind back to the spring and you will remember the footage of police accosting members of the public who dared to sit down or “mingle” in parks. Worse still was the attempt by Derbyshire Police to shame those legitimately walking in the countryside from straying too far from their homes — all captured by drone footage.
An extortionate 18,912 Fixed Penalty Notice fines were issued in England and Wales under Coronavirus Regulations between 27 March and 21 September. However, of this vast number it has been reported that only half have actually been paid, signalling an impending prosecution crisis.
Of the many penalties issued, it is estimated that thousands of fines may have been issued unlawfully. Without the resources or the legal representation to dispute the police’s penalties, many individuals have been forced to pay in order to prevent further action from being taken against them. This presents a clear injustice in and of itself, and led parliament’s Joint-Committee on Human Rights to express serious concerns.
The result of this new wave of gung-ho policing has a human face. In recent days, a video emerged of a nurse being arrested for trying to take her own mother out of a care home.
As the economy struggles, pressure has been placed on businesses too. In a well-documented case in Liverpool last month, a gym owner was fined £1,000 after he refused to close his business only hours after the city was placed under Tier 3 restrictions.
And yet, following the vote in parliament, home secretary Priti Patel told police chiefs at a meeting of the National Policing Board that she wanted to “see tougher enforcement of the necessary restrictions”.
At the demonstrations that followed on Thursday, police arrested over 100 people simply for protesting, threatened members of the press with arrest, and even threw one journalist to the ground.
Our democracy has been plunged into a darkness from which it will be difficult to ever fully recover.
The good will upon which the government has so far based its entire Covid strategy is beginning to creak. The unrestrained authoritarianism, the intrusion of restrictions into the private lives of individuals, the hypocrisy of a number of government officials and the distress caused to so many has created disquiet among large sections of society.
People across the length and breadth of the country have had to endure much in the last eight months. But after the relative normalcy that summer brought, they will no longer tolerate coercive and heavy-handed policing when it comes to the few liberties they have left.
The British public is aware of the threats that the pandemic presents. People are, for the most part, behaving sensibly and considerately. They should be supported, not vilified, for simply undertaking everyday acts.
If the government wants to prevent the winter of hardship we have heard so much about, it must start treating us with respect and not like a nation of prospective criminals.
City AM — The government must stop treating us like a nation of prospective criminals