Lingering on hilltops watching the sunrise is definitely non-essential. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

April 1, 2020   5 mins

I took a call from my mum while she was undertaking her state-sanctioned period of outdoor exercise on Sunday. “I’ve just seen a police car cruising around,” she said, sotto voce. “No sirens or anything. Just prowling. It drove past me; then it came back the other way a few minutes later.”

To understand why she felt the urge to report this to me, you would need to know that she lives in the most somnolent of villages in rural East Anglia, comprised of little more than a few houses and the odd farm. She was certain that it was the first time in a decade she’d seen a police car anywhere about the place.

Though we can’t be certain, the chances are that the local constabulary had dispatched its frontline officers to roam around sleepy villages like hers to ensure the denizens — in this case, many of them retired and elderly — were not contravening the Government’s orders by venturing outside without good cause.

If you have picked up a newspaper or switched on the TV in recent days, you will have seen this type of spectacle being played out in various ways across the country. Hit squads of police officers have descended on high streets and parks, set up checkpoints on main roads and even taken to patrolling beaches in the hunt for transgressors. In some cases, they have been handing out summonses like confetti. Some forces have even established online portals, through which individuals can report fellow citizens who might not be following the rules. Less ‘Blitz Spirit’, more a Stasi-style neighbourhood informers’ network.

Empowered — or, in some cases, wrongly assuming they were empowered — by new legislation in the form of the Coronavirus Act, the police are suddenly everywhere. It’s rather amazing, isn’t it? After years of telling the public that there just weren’t enough resources to satisfy its demand for more bobbies on the beat, our streets are suddenly flooded with them. Like a child who has received a skateboard from Santa, the police just couldn’t wait to go outside and test out their shiny new toy.

Some may wonder why the police’s zeal for getting out into the community in search of offenders — who may be taking a crafty second stroll one day or placing a non-essential Easter egg in their shopping basket — cannot be replicated when it comes to, say, investigating burglaries or cracking down on the anti-social behaviour and general day-to-day lawlessness that blights so many of our communities.

I must stress that this isn’t meant as an attack on individual police officers, most of whom carry out their duties sensibly and diligently. It is, though, a comment on the priorities of police chiefs who, backed by their masters in local and central government, downgrade — and divert resources from investigating — everyday crimes which cause considerable personal and private distress, but always seem willing to throw everything at satisfying a particular political demand. The sad truth is that when they are really needed, the police are too frequently not around.

Some of the well-documented recent incidents — such as the use of a drone by Derbyshire Police to shame members of the public — may well be seen as being at the extreme end of the spectrum and unrepresentative of wider police activity. And so they may be. Moreover, a call from the National Police Chiefs’ Council for more restraint by officers may result in fewer such aberrations henceforth. However, this is about something more than the disproportionate actions of a handful of overly-enthusiastic officers. There are, in fact, some fundamental questions here which go to the heart of how much value our society places on our hard-won freedoms and liberties, and it is astonishing, even taking into account the current fearful atmosphere, that more people are not asking them.

Are we content, for example, that our parliament nodded through, with the minimum of scrutiny and opposition, an Act which grants to ministers and police the most sweeping and draconian powers held by them in peacetime — and then, having done so, promptly shut itself down? What evidence is there that this trading of our liberties to such a drastic degree will in the end prove to have been worth it? How can we be certain that these powers will be relinquished when the pandemic is over or that, once the precedent is set, they will not be used in the future for any reason the government of the day sees fit? Governments are rarely keen to surrender powers which they have previously arrogated to themselves.

And, crucially, should the police have any role at all in enforcing what, in some cases, seem merely to be the general preferences of government rather than anything actually enshrined in the legislation itself? For example, the legislation does not prohibit members of the public from getting in their cars and driving to a convenient location for exercise — the government merely advises us not to do it — yet some police forces are acting as though it does.

One might have expected the ranks of the Left — many of whom have described this government as ‘far-Right’ and just a few months ago were banging on about a ‘coup’ — to have been in the forefront of any opposition to this curtailment of our freedoms. But, no. As is often the case, many on the Left have become the loudest cheerleaders for the new constraints on our liberties. It rarely takes much for their inner-authoritarian to reveal itself.

Notwithstanding people’s anxieties and the widespread desire to protect lives, a society that asks no questions while politicians push through this type of far-reaching legislation — effectively placing the whole population under a form of house arrest — and then stands and watches as some police forces apply a wide and unsparing interpretation of it, may be storing up all manner of problems for itself.

That’s why we should listen carefully when someone like the distinguished former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption expresses his concern. Much has been made in the media of Sumption’s condemnation of Derbyshire Police over the drone affair. But it was his wider warning against the surrender of our civil liberties that should resonate with us most. Speaking on Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’, he said:

“When human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away; it’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat… The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work… And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure might be worse than the disease… This is how societies become despotisms.”

In truth, I don’t know whether the threat is exaggerated in the way Lord Sumption suggests. For my part, I am following the Government’s advice in all matters. But there are some things I do know.

I know, for example, that other eminent and informed voices — including the likes of Dr John Ioannidis of Stanford University, retired professor of pathology Dr John Lee and Professor Sucharit Bhakdi of the University of Mainz — have raised profound concerns over the strategies employed by Western governments in their management of the pandemic. So Lord Sumption may be on to something.

I know that it is especially vital at times of mass conformism that we create a space in the debate for those with alternative opinions — especially when, like the aforementioned, they are experts in their field — and challenge any attempt to silence them.

I know that, such are the implications of the new legislation, it should not have been enacted, as it was, without the most intense and rigorous scrutiny. And we had better be on our guard for as long as these new laws are extant.

And I know, too, that on every single occasion the police abuse their powers in the name of the legislation, every citizen who believes in liberty and the rule of law has a duty to protest in the most vociferous terms.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker