In a scramble to appear to have a strong handle on the coronavirus crisis, the government introduced sweeping new police powers to enforce the lockdown. Hanna Gál writes on why these measures will not keep us safe.
On 24 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced emergency measures to restrict the movement of individuals in order to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in the UK. These include: people are not permitted to leave their homes, except in the case of infrequent shopping for essential groceries, medical appointments or supporting a vulnerable person, one form of exercise a day and travelling to and from work which cannot be done in the home. People found in breach of these rules are facing fines from the police. Some further restrictions less frequently discussed include: powers granted to the police, immigration officers and public health officials to detain, quarantine and extract biological samples from people suspected of being infected and issue fines for refusal to be tested. Under the emergency powers, temporary changes to the Mental Health Act mean people can be detained on the recommendation of only one doctor, and the maximum length of detention has been extended to cope with staff shortages.
While it is essential to maintain social distancing to slow down and stop the spread of the virus, the extended powers given to the police force and immigration officers are a cause for concern for several reasons.
Containment and austerity
The government’s response, while it may seem fudged, is rather consistent. They may have backtracked on their initial strategy of ‘herd immunity’, but the measures put in place across the board in the NHS, in regards to business and restrictions on personal freedoms and increased police powers are in line with the Tory government’s neoliberal austerity agenda that predates the crisis.
There has now been a several weeks’ long, coordinated media campaign to frame both the challenges faced by a chronically underfunded health system and the inadequacy of capitalist supply chains in terms of personal responsibility. The pleas by government figures, as well as the now in place punitive measures are supposed to ‘save our NHS’ – while the health service is already designed, on economic deliberations, to be running near capacity even at normal times.
As Charlie Jackson put is, other people are not the problem. He writes ‘since before greater restrictions were introduced on Monday there has also been a rising moral campaign against those breaching ‘social distancing’ measures. Last weekend it was reported that ‘thousands’ were defying social distancing measures on trips to seaside towns. Pictures of outdoor markets crammed with shoppers circulated around social media.’ It is no surprise, sadly, that there has been not only little resistance, but in fact enthusiasm following the introduction of increased policing. Police forces across the country now report that since the restrictions have been put in place, they have been overwhelmed by calls from people reporting their neighbours going for a second jog, and many see Boris Johnson as a strong leader ‘uniting the nation’ in the face of crisis.
The police will not protect us
We must see these restrictions firstly as an ideological veil over the government’s wilful inability to respond to the crisis effectively – for instance by closing down all production and requisitioning all private hospitals to the NHS. If the rapid spread of the virus and the overwhelmed healthcare system appears to be the fault of non-compliant individuals, draconian policing measures give the illusion that the crisis is being contained.
It cannot be the solution, however, even on its own terms. The police force have voiced concerns over the lack of personnel to enforce the restrictions – as, ironically enough, austerity measures have not left the police unscathed either. This, of course, carries risks in itself, as it is the case that policing will be done arbitrarily, disproportionately targeting those already at increased police scrutiny as in the case of stop and search, as Micha Frazer-Carroll wrote for gal-dem.com. There are also concerns over the fact that to resolve staff shortages, police officers retired in the past five years were called back into the force, many of whom were in retirement due to cases of misconduct.
Nonetheless, there have been several police operations in place to catch those ‘flouting’ the lockdown, including checks at train and tube stations, roadblocks and even drone operations in the Peak District, documented by a regularly updated Twitter thread by Netpol.
It is even clearer that the restrictions on movement are ideological when it comes to border controls. The EU closed all its external borders as a measure of protection, even though by the time this was introduced, Western Europe was already the global epicentre of the virus. The emergency bill has granted the same rights to immigration officers as to the police, and immigration raids continue while the lockdown is in effect. Those in immigration detention were reported to be locked in their rooms in Brook House detention centre as the lockdown came into effect, and while a small number of detainees were released from other centres, there are no plans for mass releases from detention or from prisons, despite it being in the interest of public health.
Probably most telling, is the section in the Emergency Bill concerning airports, which clearly states they will only be closed if there is not enough staff to adequately enforce border controls.
It is clear from the events of the past few weeks that the state will not, and does not want to protect us. We must be looking towards collective ways of social solidarity or ‘proletarian lockdown’. We have to force the hand of the state, and that of businesses to shut down all non-essential production, through strikes or mass sickouts, as we have seen in Italy and the US in the last few weeks. We should use the mutual aid networks that sprung up in all corners of the country not as a charity service or an act of benevolence, but in a collective and strategic tool for all of those around us to stay as safe as possible – such as coordinated and collectivised shopping by building blocks or streets, educating ourselves together on the proper safety measures to take, watching out for each other’s health. This will also help us realise that we do not, at all, need to call the police if we witness social distancing measures breached. Only collectively we can protect ourselves so that we never go back to ‘normal.’