The choice presented to Parliament by the demands of the scientists for a lockdown (given the circumstances ‘demands’ seems a more appropriate term than ‘advice’) was between the lesser of two evils: the possibility of the NHS being temporarily overwhelmed; as against the certainty of ruined businesses, lost livelihoods, enormous borrowings to be repaid, and shorter lives resulting from the economic damage.
Given the debunking of the ‘project fear’ graphs produced by the chiefs last weekend, it seemed to me that the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed was overstated.
I do not underestimate the unpleasantness of the NHS being overwhelmed. We have seen that happen before from flu and Norovirus, with scenes of ambulances queuing at A&E and patients being treated on trollies. Clearly, measures need to be taken to avoid it. Not locking-down would have been a risk, in my judgement a risk worth taking given the huge damage that the lock-down will cause. Nevertheless, I was on the losing side when it came to the vote, and that’s democracy.
Modern liberal democracy however, has come to mean much more that rule by majority. It includes the rule of law, due process, fundamental liberties such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of worship.
It is with regard to these values that I find the response to Coronavirus so shocking and worrying. The British people appear to have quietly shrugged it off as these liberties have been swept aside. The state has taken all the coercive powers of the law to tell us where we may go, whom we may meet, what we must wear, and to outlaw protests.
On that last count, even more sinister, is the way that the organs of the totalitarian state reach out to go beyond even what has been proscribed: I have received representations from intensive care doctors who have been warned that their employment is in jeopardy because they have expressed doubts about the lock-down policy.
Instead of a rising chorus of protest against these enormities we are informed by pollsters, on the contrary, that the appetite of the people is for even more draconian measures. I am appalled.
Our liberties did not come cheaply, they were bought by the struggles of our forebears, many of whom died in the pursuit of freedom.
I am informed by my critics that I have failed to appreciate that the preservation of life itself is more important than liberty: ‘life at all costs’. I wonder to what extent such an overriding imperative is the product of the decline of religious belief.
Happily a large number of elderly and vulnerable people have written to me with a quite different perspective. They tell me that they would, given the choice, rather lead a full life and encounter the risk of catching the virus, than be protected at the cost of their liberty.
Of course, disproportionately they come from a generation that made many sacrifices to defend liberty.