When the lockdown is over, we must ensure that state creep falls into retreat and that intrusive surveillance is not the new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our way of life and prompted the Government to introduce measures that would have seemed extreme just a few weeks ago. Large public gatherings are now banned, economic activity all but suspended, and the movement of citizens’ subject to checks. The instructions, to stay at home, forego all but essential work, and refrain from societal interaction, would, in any other circumstance, be interpreted as an assault on our civil liberties.

But, in this unprecedented time, where normalcy has no voice, it passes without criticism. The scale of the challenge borne by COVID-19 is such that the cession of certain freedoms seems entirely appropriate.

After all, we’re all in this together. And few would disagree with the ambitions of the Government’s “Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” messaging.

Yet, its important to recognise that situations, like this, can prove fertile ground for those with nefarious motives. Citizens want strong and decisive leadership, and, in turn, are prepared to cede their rights, in the short term, in order to reach an end point. But this can carry risk, as evidenced by events in Hungary, where, under the veil of emergency COVID legislation, the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, effected a power grab to the detriment of the country’s democracy, independent media, and rights of minority groups.

We’re nowhere near this point, of course, but it is important that we recognise and stand guarded to the dangers of state aggrandizement. The Coronavirus Act, which passed into law last month, gave Government unprecedented powers, and was swiftly followed by emergency regulations that gave the police the right to prevent people leaving their houses without a “reasonable excuse”. One political commentator, at the time, labelled the emergency laws the “most extensive encroachment on British civil liberties we have seen outside of wartime”.

Most of us will accept that the motives of the state, in this case, were well-intentioned and aligned with the need to limit mass infection and an overburdening of the NHS. But having yielded new powers, at relative ease and with the public will, its entirely possible that the Government could return with new proposals that will erode civil freedom still further, and well-beyond the current crisis. Rumours of data sharing, between mobile operators and the state, as a means of tracking our movements exemplify the likely direction of travel, and a revival of the ambitions advocated by Theresa May and her subsequently watered-down Investigative Powers Bill – otherwise known as the ‘Snoopers Charter’. Those that advocated the introduction of ID cards, back in the Blair years, have also revived their calls for increased documentation in the “interests” of public safety.

It’s a line that’s gaining traction in the media, by the day, and that received oxygen, late last month, upon the publication of a paper by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI).

This paper examines the possible “escape routes” from the current crisis, and, in its conclusion, advocates the extension of mass surveillance as a means of limiting a post-lockdown spike in coronavirus cases. It argues that there are three “undesirable” options available to the government – an overwhelmed health system, a prolonged economic shutdown, or a broadened remit when it comes to surveillance – and that the tracking of citizens, en masse, represents the most “reasonable” pathway.

Viewed in the immediate, such a move might well appeal as an exit point. Support in the Government is strong, after all, and the public are prepared to follow its lead for the betterment of the country. If parcelled-up with the NHS, too, which seems likely, it could well succeed.

However, in the longer-term the damage such an invasion upon our privacy would wreak warrants consideration. A proposed mobile app, fronted and badged by our health service and discussed with MPs last week week, will “notify” its developers and stakeholders if groups of more than two people congregate in a space for too long at a time. This represents a gross disregard for our individual liberties and signals a move towards mass state surveillance.

For example, what is to stop this “optional” notification function of the app being removed in a subsequent update, and buried in the depths of revised terms and conditions. The same could apply, in a more covert sense, via a data-sharing agreement between our mobile providers and the state. In short, our giving an inch, even temporarily in these surreal circumstances, is likely to have longer-lasting implications.

None of us know when normality will return, and it is understandable, and right, that we look to the Government for direction. However, in our doing so, we should be mindful and resist our natural inclination to uncritically back assertive instructions or proposals that purport to shield us from danger. We must engage, critique, and, at the very least, demand the inclusion of time-limits to any legal cession of our rights – not just now, in our fight with COVID-19, but in any extraordinary conditions going forward.

David Yorath is a communications specialist and a former advisor and speechwriter for a Conservative Member of Parliament