The Guardian view on the coronavirus big state: it’s here to stay | Opinion

Boris Johnson’s declaration of war on an invisible, elusive and advancing foe was long overdue. His reluctance to wage an effective campaign left the nation dangerously exposed to the deadly threat coronavirus posed. The prime minister had given the impression that this episode was a test of Darwinian fitness for the public and it would be possible to get through it without any upheaval to the post-election order. That was a substantial error of both judgment and ideology, the scale of which was laid bare by the government’s own analysis that an unmitigated epidemic could lead to 510,000 deaths.

Panic gripped and enlarged Leviathan, the sovereign power meant to protect us from one another. Harried by the bond markets, seeing parts of the economy approaching collapse and with the Covid-19 death toll creeping upwards, Mr Johnson’s government first created £200bn to stave off a run on its bonds, then nationalised the railways and finally ordered the population to stay behind locked doors.

During the crisis, Mr Johnson has been forced to implement measures – such as limiting movement and policing quarantines – that infringe on liberties to preserve life. Covid-19 has already disrupted economic, social and spiritual life. Individuals will submit to restrictions. But that consent is conditional on sacrifices being equally shared. It’s no good expanding the state to save businesses but not people. That is why Labour is right to push the government to produce a support package for the self-employed and to get protective equipment to medics.

While the prime minister looked all at sea, his opponents within and without the Conservative party have been admirably clear about the gravity of the situation. Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, is beginning to establish himself as a prophet who had been right all along. He has been ahead of the curve with his warnings about the scale of the crisis. This is not something to cavil at, even when there is a general agreement over the need for national purpose. In our democracy, government is accountable to parliament, and politicians’ reputations are built by their arguments being vindicated by events.

Mr Hunt, who lost to Mr Johnson to lead the Tory party, highlighted how South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have all experienced low death tolls through mass testing and tracking. While reporting enables scientists to predict a disease’s trajectory, allows researchers to develop treatments and vaccines, and helps doctors to trace transmission, such a regime raises concerns about the reach of government. Tracking populations to fight the disease now may open the doors to more invasive forms of government eavesdropping later.

One group of technologists, civil liberty groups and academics has warned that “the combination of the [new emergency coronavirus] bill with existing far-reaching data-gathering powers creates the risk that location and contact-tracking technology could be used as a means of social control”. What is needed, they say, is for any initiatives being considered by ministers to “protect human rights, be proportionate and work within the rule of law – not least because they will set the template for what comes next in the delivery of health services in the UK”. Such a call ought to be heeded, especially in light of the prime minister’s own dim view of such protections.

The habits of mind that need to be cultivated by government to succeed with this approach are transparency and trust, neither of which come easily to Mr Johnson’s team, who sometimes view criticism as unpatriotic. What is required is a high level of candour and accountability. Mr Johnson has to act decisively. He will probably adopt policies to combat the pandemic so intrusive and big they would be considered bizarre in normal times. But these are not normal times. In the longer term his expanded state must be a supportive – rather than corrosive – one.

Source link