January 18, 2021 - 10:04am

Adam Wagner is one of the UK’s highest-profile legal experts on human rights, citing Shami Chakrabati as one of his main influences in the field. He strongly distances himself from “covid deniers” whose attempt to minimise the threat of the virus he describes as “dangerous nonsense”, and expressed dismay at Lord Sumption’s insensitive phrasing about the value of lives on television yesterday. In other words, he’s about as far from an ideological Right-winger as you’ll find in the British media.

So it was especially sobering to hear him set out some of the things he is worried about from a legal and human rights perspective since the pandemic started around 12 months ago. He wondered aloud on Twitter whether, had the virus not originated in China and had the response not been set by their invention of lockdowns, this approach would ever have become the accepted sensible response in liberal Western democracies?

He argues that, while he absolutely accepts that the virus constitutes a threat that justifies emergency action:

  • Lockdowns have become a “received wisdom” and that, in due course, a proper inquiry into which components actually were effective, and whether each component passed the proportionality test, is essential.
  • The emergency powers taken by the Government have been abused — they were not designed to be used over such a long period of time. He deplores the lack of oversight and due process for these measures that change everybody’s lives.
  • The “Napoleonic” principle that everything is illegal unless you are explicitly allowed it is an inversion of the way the law has worked in this country throughout modern times. If you had told a human rights expert or public lawyer this would be the situation 12 months ago they would never have believed you.
  • From a Human Rights perspective, balancing the right to life with the right to associate, and the right to a family life, is a precarious act and it is right to scrutinise every measure in that context and be sceptical of them to make sure they are not going too far
  • Once restrictions are taken for temporary emergencies, a look at history shows that they tend to become permanent (he cites the terrorism measures in response to 9/11 as an example).
I think with Covid, the danger is that if it never leaves us, or it mutates or a different virus arrives with a similar dynamic we’ll be in a semi-permanent state of “this is what we do” — when this happens, we have lockdowns, we have emergency laws, we take away parliamentary niceties like scrutiny, debates, votes, that sort of thing… And I think that is a danger that doesn’t come out of the fringes of the lockdown sceptic movement. That’s the real deal as a worry.
- Adam Wagner, LockdownTV

Many thanks to Adam for such an interesting conversation.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.