I have written back to a lot of constituents who have been in touch with their concerns about the Coronavirus Act renewal, which a majority of MPs (including me) voted through the Commons last night. Like everyone (except the most perverse authoritarians, and I haven’t met any such people) I deeply regret the necessity of the measures made possible by this Act, including the power to detain citizens and compel businesses to close.
Renewal of the Act is necessary to maintain the furlough scheme, special measures for the courts, and other necessary arrangements for the extraordinary situation we are in, which will still be needed after lockdown ends (we hope) on 21 June. It might be wondered whether it is necessary to continue the measures against personal liberty beyond the end of the lockdown. But I am afraid the possibility remains of a further wave of coronavirus. We are seeing a third spike in infections on the continent, and the rate of decrease of new cases in England is slowing (infections are actually rising in pockets, including Swindon). We have no serious cause for alarm, not least because of the success of the vaccination programme. But the government is clearly taking no chances, and wants to keep the powers just in case.
I do want to say candidly that I am very uneasy about the infringements of liberty we have all had to put up with. I have written before that I share many of the beliefs of the lockdown sceptics. A society in which most people, most of the time, don’t do the right thing voluntarily is one that no police and criminal justice system can ever hope to manage through force. The problem is that a disease which transmits through social contact is a disaster for our most basic freedom, the freedom to mix with whomever and whenever we like. I am glad that, in keeping with the principle of consent that is the foundation of a free society, most people have accepted the restrictions with good grace. But I know we cannot live under these rules - even if they are never used - indefinitely. Just as this lockdown absolutely must be the last (hence the cautious exit, which enrages many of my correspondents), the restrictions on our freedoms must end soon too, never to be reimposed.