Civil Liberties and Ending the Lockdown

Civil Liberties and Ending the Lockdown 800 450 Wera Hobhouse MP

This article originally appeared in Lib Dem Voice

In the weeks ahead, as the government seeks to loosen the lockdown while containing the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely to introduce measures that in ordinary times would constitute serious violations of our civil liberties. For example, the government is likely to introduce extensive COVID-19 testing, enforce quarantine for those who test positive and compulsory trace, everyone; they have come into contact with.

As Liberals, a fundamental test we apply to any state action that restricts civil liberties is the one set out by John Stuart Mill: a person should be free to behave as they choose as long as they do not infringe the freedoms of others. The COVID-19 pandemic is a situation where civil liberties can, in principle, legitimately be restricted because if a person spreads COVID-19, they clearly infringe the freedoms of others.

However, in practice, great care must be taken that our civil liberties are restricted to the smallest possible extent.
It is not yet clear exactly what the government intends to introduce. But there are some key issues that we should consider now, so we can scrutinise whatever measures the government proposes.

One key issue concerns the universality of measures. Should people be able to opt-out, for example, by refusing to be tested, refusing to share details of contacts, or refusing to be quarantined? If large numbers of people refused to comply, then they would become ineffective. However, a liberal society should cautious about authoritarian enforcement measures. It should be reluctant to criminalise those who wish to opt-out immediately. A liberal society works best by consent.

We have seen how the great majority of people has followed social distancing and stay-at-home measures. The police have first sought to persuade and only punished as a last resort. Any new arrangements should follow the same approach.
Another major concern is the management of enormous volumes of data. If we follow the example of South Korea and harness smartphone technology, it might be via an App that keeps a record of where we have been, the people we have come into contact with and automatically notify people if somebody they have been in contact with tested positive. It might even check that we were abiding in quarantine.

Therefore a number of safeguards should be adhered to in order to protect our civil liberties. Firstly, we must scrutinise who owns the App, and has the right to analyse and act on its data. We should question whether such data should be owned directly by the government. It would not be appropriate to let a private tech company own the App. The best solution is probably to allow the NHS to own and manage the App and ringfence its powers.

Secondly, we must carefully limit the circumstances in which data from the App can be shared with other organisations. For example, we must consider whether data from the App could be shared with the police.

Thirdly, we must define exactly when data from the App must be deleted. It is vital that the data will be discarded when it ceases to be relevant to containing and tracing the spread of COVID-19.

Finally, we should set up a designated regulatory organisation that oversees the powers that are being granted and can penalise abusers. An existing example of such an organisation is the Information Commissioner’s Office that polices ordinary data privacy.

We are still many weeks away from the end of the lockdown, but the exit strategy is starting to be discussed now. We Liberals must take the lead in ensuring that our civil liberties are protected.