Coronavirus has pushed our society to the very brink of what we thought was possible. The current lockdown restrictions seemed unthinkable just a few months ago and yet now have become part of our daily reality. Despite the extension of lockdown, we know it cannot go on indefinitely. The impact on our mental health and physical wellbeing, the spiralling rates of domestic abuse and loneliness are taking a terrible toll. The public are rightly beginning to ask how and when we are going to bring about an end to this isolation.
As the Government extends this lockdown for another three weeks, we as a country need to consider what we are willing to accept in order to exit lockdown, and where we draw lines on civil liberties.
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Balancing public health initiatives against individual rights is not a new issue: just think back to the controversies surrounding the smoking ban or the “sugar tax”. As liberals, our instinct is to uphold the rights of the individual to choose what is best for them. Any infringement must be questioned, debated and justified.
The current scope of the challenge doesn’t mean we have to abandon these principles, but it does mean we need to consider them in the context of the new Covid-19 reality. It’s the same reality that first thrust this lockdown upon us, with billions around the world sacrificing individual freedoms to stop this virus spreading. Lockdown remains vital in protecting healthcare systems, but we must begin to consider what comes next.
Easing out of any lockdown will create new threats to civil liberties, given the need for additional measures to track, trace and isolate Covid-19. Failure to contain the virus would see an unacceptable surge in cases and an increase in preventable deaths.Any strategy for easing out of lockdown must prevent any such surge.
We need to start having conversations about how far we as individuals and as a society are willing to go to end the pandemic.
Countries that have already been successful in suppressing the outbreak, including Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, have a consistent message on testing and tracking. The WHO has been clear on its guidance that testing, isolation and contact tracing must be the “backbone” of the response to the pandemic, and – in the absence of a vaccine - this is almost certainly the most viable way out of the current impasse.
A substantial increase in testing capacity of both antigen and antibody tests, coupled with rigorous contact tracing, would allow us to shift from mass isolation to targeted isolation of affected individuals. Given that the Health Secretary has confirmed that NHSx is now working on a voluntary surveillance app, similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether, we need to start having conversations about how far we as individuals and as a society are willing to go to end the pandemic.
As we consider where the balance lies, it’s worth remembering the extent to which we are currently compromising civil liberties as the lockdown continues. Across the UK people have proved willing to stay at home, doing whatever is necessary to stop the spread of this virus, protect the most vulnerable and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. It seems likely people will show the same willingness to use technology to facilitate an end to the current lockdown.
However, as the Government considers tracking and tracing apps, they must be completely transparent about what is involved, particularly in terms of data collection. Ministers must provide cast iron legal guarantees preventing any personal data from being misused or shared beyond its stated purpose. Equally, any contact tracing app must be voluntary as opposed to enforceable. Finally, the Government must demonstrate that it has the capacity to make contact tracing and testing a success, not least by ensuring wide testing is possible. Current figures suggest that there is still a long way to go on that front.
The UK has some tough choices ahead on the trade offs between protecting public health and personal liberties. We must make them together and we must learn from what is happening in other countries. Policy must always be evidence-based, and we need transparency and accountability around that evidence, the political trade-offs and decisions that are being made on the basis of that evidence. Covid-19 will be with us for a long time and the actions that we take, willingly or unwillingly, will be with us for months to come.
Munira Wilson is the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham and party spokesperson for health and social care.