'Please Mr Hancock,' pleads Jonathan Schofield, 'the right to exercise must stay - for liberty's sake'
The government can be criticised for aspects of its reaction to the coronavirus crisis. It should have started preparing earlier so we had more tests, PPE and ventilators.
But it can be praised too. The exercise clause to the lockdown provision is humane and logical in terms of personal freedom, mental health and, important this, calming the population and reducing the potential for social unrest.
The government’s changing tone is encouraged by much of the mainstream media who have run out of ideas about what to ask
So Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s statement on Sunday that he might remove the safety valve of exercise and imprison us in our homes (aside from nipping out to join a queue outside the local shop) was unwelcome. It sounded like a change of mood in the executive, aka the government.
There is always a danger, in times such as these, that exceptional measures carried through by a Parliament (when it was sitting) at a time when there was no effective opposition and nobody felt right to question the perceived consensus, can be ramped up into something more sinister. The separation of powers between executive, judiciary and legislature is crucial to our system and is threatened in emergency situations when neither the judiciary nor the legislature is effectively functioning.
Hancock’s voice has started to take on an authoritarian tone. He was beginning to sound over the weekend with his ‘instruction’ speech like a hectoring parent politician telling his naughty children citizens off. In some countries this is a habitual fall-back to government by diktat not by debate. We’ve seen this in Hungary and Russia. China is very good at authoritarianism, built for it you might say, but we should run a mile from that species of terrifying governance. We aren't built for it.
My son, Oliver, is working in Barcelona in lockdown; from home of course, in his flat, alone. He’s lucky he has a job that is still paying him but also that he has a roof terrace. If he didn’t he would be stuck inside those four walls all day aside from a trip for food to a shop very close to his flat. Spain does not allow the liberty of exercise to its citizens. Oliver used to run several miles a day. That’s gone, even though he could run the empty streets on his own. Heaven forbid we go that far in the UK, especially as there is no evidence to say the Spanish, Italian and French extreme lockdowns are more effective.
The government’s darkening tone is encouraged by much of the mainstream media who have run out of ideas about what to ask at the largely pointless daily briefings. As Matthew Parris has written: ‘We need to get this into proportion. Too much time is now chasing too few new facts. We’re slipping into a general media response that badly needs calming. Politicians and public health authorities are being invited to make statements rather than answer serious questions. Journalists are filling the air with frightening or moving personal stories which are essentially anecdotal with little indication of how representative they are.
Those daily briefings are a waste of time because they essentially repeat the same thing with journalists asking the same questions. This is dangerous. The daily briefings tempt the government to become more authoritarian because it feels it has to say something substantive and the media encourage this, as Parris points out, because of their preoccupation with subjective personal stories rather than objective judgement. Twice a week briefings would suffice surely and help cool the temperature - unless there’s a big breaking issue.
What Hancock should have said over the weekend was that police would start fining people gathering in groups in parks and elsewhere - but maybe not for taking ten minutes to sunbathe during a rest while on a walk. The powers are there to sanction rule-breakers without taking away our freedom to exercise.
The focus on exercise also ignores the fact it’s shopping that’s the big problem for social distancing. We might stand two metres from each other at doors to stores, but inside it is hard not to occasionally pass people within a foot or two. Surely there could be a digital solution to this, maybe we all have designated shopping days, or we order online for delivery?
Again though, such measures get too close to the government reaching deep into the nitty gritty of controlling our lives. Government bashing over testing, ventilators and PPE is justified but in terms of shopping trips and exercise Britain appears to have got it right, balancing sensible precautions with the right to certain personal liberties. Exercise is good for morale, we all know that.
Every mature society, indeed every school from primary upwards, knows that you must never punish everybody for the actions of a few. People will find that unfair and will start to harbour resentment. Blanket blaming causes trouble. Hancock needs to tone down his rhetoric and the media should stop encouraging him to ramp it up. We should be treated as adults in a mature democracy. Follow the science, yes, but let's not talk ourselves into more extreme measures.
A justifiable and sensible defence of the NHS is one thing, turning it into an excuse for deepening authoritarianism from an executive operating under little real scrutiny is very much another.