In China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, the government has tools for social control that British police forces could only dream of. Facial recognition software and data tracking keep a log of the movements of citizens, assigning them a social credit score and ensuring that any behaviour deemed distasteful can be monitored and curbed.
The UK is not China. But the swift transformation we have seen since lockdown measures were introduced last week should serve as warning about where we could be headed.
This lockdown may be unavoidable – although it is worth noting that there is some dispute about that among experts. But even if it is unequivocally the most effective way to save lives, that does not mean it should be welcomed.
The most draconian crackdowns on personal liberty this country has ever seen in peacetime are at best a necessary evil. People are being asked to make phenomenal sacrifices – not just to their social lives but to their financial stability, their relationships, their mental and physical health – for the sake of the small minority who are most at risk. That is a tremendous ask in a free society, and it is to our credit that the government’s call has been answered for the most part with willingness and good grace.
But for the country’s closet authoritarians, this national crisis represents the opportunity of a lifetime.
The challenge facing police forces should not be underestimated. Drastically curtailing people’s freedom to travel may reduce some forms of crime, but it radically increases the potential for other offences. Think of the domestic violence victims trapped in abusive households, and the vulnerable self-isolators who suddenly find themselves targets for cyber-attacks, not to mention the increase in mental health breakdowns and suicide attempts as desperate people are cut off from the social contact that was their only lifeline.
This is a moment for our police to step up and show that they are on the public’s side as we all grapple with the new demands. Instead, law and order officials are flexing their newly-empowered muscles and criminalising as much behaviour as they can.
The most egregious example of overreach came from Derbyshire, where the police force used drones to film unsuspecting walkers in the Peak District, publishing the footage at the weekend with the ominous warning that such behaviour was “not essential”. In fact, the government guidelines specifically allow and indeed encourage daily exercise.
The Derbyshire force’s gripe was with people driving to remote spots to walk, which they claimed was against the rules (although no such prohibition actually exists, so far). The offenders were clearly in household groups, and were acting responsibly by walking on deserted paths, limiting social contact more than they would by exercising in highly populated residential areas.
But to the police, such nuance was irrelevant. What mattered was demonstrating their drone technology, and sending a message that any dissent – however sensible – was not to be tolerated.
Other police forces are catching up. Police in London have been telling commuters on public transport to go home, even though a significant number of workers are still permitted to travel for their jobs.
Greater Manchester Police tweeted that exercise should last no more than an hour – a limit stated nowhere in government guidelines. And Humberside even launched an online portal for people to report their neighbours for supposedly breaking the social distancing rules.
We should be extremely wary of such tendencies and the enthusiasm from some civilians to embrace them. Reporting on your neighbour for behaviour you deem unsavoury is a feature of authoritarian regimes like China, not of liberal democracies.
While there will always be some who bend or break the rules without good reason, for the most part Britons are being overwhelmingly responsible – and the police should exert similar common sense.
A dog walker who drives to a remote spot, a parent who takes a screaming baby for a walk twice a day instead of once, someone who travels by car to the nearest large town to shop instead of depleting the local small supermarket – none of these people are criminals. And the idea that they could be reported to overzealous police by sanctimonious curtain-twitching neighbours is chilling.
This lockdown is going to test our society in ways we have not yet considered. Beyond the immediate tragedy of the health crisis, we are witnessing families split apart, children pulled out of school, workers left destitute despite the promised government assistance, businesses collapsing, while the mental health of the entire nation is being put under immense strain like never before.
The government needs to recognise these extraordinary sacrifices, thank citizens for making them, and respect us by trusting people to make their own decisions about how to practise social distancing with minimal damage to themselves or others. That starts with the police.
Going full-Stasi in five days is the antithesis of the British concept of policing by consent. And if we want to return to a free society when this crisis is over, rather than sleepwalking towards China’s dystopian example, we must call out this creeping authoritarianism wherever we see it.
Rachel Cunliffe is the Comment and Features Editor at CityAM.