At 4am this morning, it became an offence to go into a shop or on public transport without a face covering. Whether you think this is long overdue or a burdensome overreach, one feature of this should concern us all – it is a diktat.
We are back to televised statements announcing restrictions imposed by a ministerial pen due to the “urgency” of the public health situation. Until late yesterday afternoon, Ministers were claiming that whilst there was time for a press conference, media rounds and parliamentary statements, there was no time for MPs to debate or vote. Only after intense lobbying by angered backbench colleagues did Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, confirm there will be a debate and a vote on the new measures later today.
Regardless, this claim to “urgency” doesn’t quite wash, two years into life with Covid.
We are clearly in a period of prolonged exceptionalism — the kind that redefines a country and its values. The muscle memory we have acquired from repeated executive-imposed lockdowns is impossible to unlearn. The Government’s continued avoidance of parliamentary scrutiny — unless forced by backbench pressure — treats democracy as part-time, debate as futile, and opposition as something to be squashed.
Let’s be honest, this is exactly how politicians intoxicated with power want it to be.
As of this week, Covid passports are a requirement in Northern Ireland’s restaurants, cinemas and large events. A vote in Stormont on a Covid passport law is not expected to take place until next week — once the scheme is “bedded in”, according to Northern Ireland’s Department of Health. In other words, once ministers’ plans have been rolled out and the public have been forced to comply with them, then elected representatives can rubber stamp the scheme. That is the Orwellian version of representative democracy we apparently have in the post-Covid world.
The abandonment of the rule of law is not only draconian but utterly shambolic. Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister Naomi Long was seen lamenting on Twitter over the weekend over news that Covid passports would not be required in unlicensed venues like cafes. Long thought the Health Minister was implementing a more expansive scheme. That’s the thing about replacing laws with diktats — you’re at the mercy of a minister’s word. And when even ministers are even arguing among themselves about the meaning of the rules they are decreeing, something is seriously wrong.
The principle of “no debate” is being slowly institutionalised under ministerial rule, and critics are being recast as enemies. So when we ran campaign ads around Northern Ireland this weekend ahead of ministers’ Covid passport policy being imposed yesterday, some politicians were outraged. Our campaign ads called for a “free future” (how dare we?) and promoted our campaign site URL stopvaccinepassports.co.uk, which explores the rights and equalities issues with domestic Covid passports and encourages members of the public to write to their representatives. But this led elected Alliance Party representative Stewart Dickson MLA to publicly accuse us of “putting the lives of shop workers and others at risk” and an elected councillor from the same party to call for our “very concerning” ads to be “turned off ASAP”.
Not only is this inflammatory nonsense. Not only does it betray a misunderstanding of the latest diktat they are so vehemently defending, which does not actually require Covid passports for shops. It is censorious, deeply chilling, and a sobering illustration of how democracy is eroding before our eyes.
It is right that we debate ministers’ Covid policies — in fact, it is the responsible thing for both the citizenry and elected bodies to do. It used to be the process by which laws are made.
Magna Carta enshrined the ancient democratic principle that the law is above the word of the King. But the word of Covid authoritarians has emerged as its own supreme authority that increasingly we are scolded for questioning.
In which case, we must question it more.
Silkie Carlo is the Director of Big Brother Watch