It was the Stoic playwright Seneca who first compared magicians’ tricks and the art of political distraction. Were he a British commentator today, he’d no doubt have something to say about how in late September, while we queued for fuel and argued over Brexit’s role in the supply chain crisis, the government quietly issued its proposal for mandatory vaccine certification in England, similar to that in Scotland and Wales. Under the proposal, those not fully vaccinated against covid will be barred from a variety of public and private venues, regardless of their actual health or antibody status. freedom
The government insists vaccine segregation is still “Plan B”, but with the inevitable rise in hospitalisations over winter, few doubt it will be implemented. And it’s not the first illiberal legislation put forward since the start of the pandemic. Proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act will increase both the types of information falling under the act and the penalties imposed on whistleblowers and journalists, regardless of public interest. The recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the police power to restrict non-violent protest based on noise, striking at the heart of why people protest in the first place – to be heard. Indeed, demonstrations with the greatest public support are likely to be disproportionately impacted. And let’s not forget the Coronavirus Act itself, described by the commentator Ian Dunt as the “most extensive encroachment on British civil liberties… outside of wartime.”
The argument for mandatory vaccine certification is the threat of the NHS coming under “unsustainable pressure”, a purposefully ambiguous phrase typical of the new Newspeak. Few dispute that the health system is overloaded, and hospital staff overworked and underpaid. But a glance through the archives shows headlines warning of the NHS’ imminent demise ahead of every winter for at least the past two decades. In fact, in November 2019, months before Covid struck, a report by the BMA warned that the NHS was “on the cusp of collapse”. The ugly truth is that both Labour and Conservative governments have failed to stem the rot caused by years of chronic underfunding, malign bureaucracy, and the pillaging of resources by medical privateers. The pandemic has undoubtedly added further pressure, but that’s an argument for fixing the NHS, not imposing a discriminatory measure that – as is already clear in Scotland – is difficult to implement and of dubious efficacy in relieving pressure on hospitals.
The government rightly hailed the vaccination programme for pathing the return to freedom, but now it has fashioned a way to use it as a tool for repression. Those who believe that the threat posed by the pandemic overrides democratic sensibilities should consider the difference between temporary public health measures applied generally (such as mask-wearing and social distancing) and the use of medical ID to segregate a minority and restrict its freedoms. And given Boris Johnson’s “gaslighting” approach to government it’s impossible to trust him when he says that vaccine segregation won’t become a permanent feature or subject to mission creep.
Britain is not alone in this lurch towards authoritarianism. Freedom in the World 2021, the annual assessment of civil liberties published by Freedom House (a bipartisan US foundation established in 1941) reports fifteen consecutive years of diminishing freedom, with countries designated “Not Free” reaching the highest level since democracy began to decline in 2006. The report downgraded freedom scores in countries representing 75 per cent of the global population, including repressive states like China and Belarus, but also troubled democracies like the US and India. A more worrying example for British citizens is the enthusiasm for repression that has taken hold in supposedly liberal Australia, with which the UK and US have recently entered into an ill-judged military alliance.
As Esler writes, the problem is that Johnson deploys deceit and doublespeak instead of developing the complex solutions needed to solve our many complex problems. In just a few weeks the UK will host COP26, an opportunity to show real leadership on the mitigation, adaptation and financial strategies urgently needed to deal with the climate crisis. But for all its slogans the government doesn’t have a realistic climate plan A, let alone plan B. The UK remains on course to increase rather than reduce carbon emissions,
while pressing ahead with the ecologically indefensible HS2, and doing nothing to halt plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria. And why would we be surprised? Despite his thundering defence of the liberties of all “free-born English men and women” as a columnist, in power Johnson’s commitment to them has proved incredibly shallow. So we shouldn’t expect him to pay anything more than lip service to a cause he only adopted as recently as 2019 to please his current spouse.
Presumably then, as our prime minister incongruously implored world leaders at the UN last month to “grow up”, he was also only repeating what he’s been instructed to do at home. But while we wait for that to happen, it’s worth remembering Seneca’s observations about political sleights of hand, and that all of his plays end in tragedy