Covid — the perfect public health emergency that just keeps on giving. Each new scariant is only ever one step away from the next new scariant — an endless flow of new worries, Fergie forecasts and government responses, forever clogging up the mainstream media, like logs in a log jam. Behind the puppetry, for an authoritarian government hell bent on passing draconian laws and regulations with the minimum of scrutiny, covid is the perfect enabling epidemic, because it allows the government to get into the swing of passing law by diktat, or secondary legislation, which is almost never subject to meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. The backstops against bad secondary legislation, the arcane the negative and affirmative procedures, haven’t been used in anger since the late 1970s. In practice, the instruments of secondary legislation sail through Parliament like ships in the night, unseen, unheard, and unopposed. As of 10th December 2021, the government has laid 1,788 SIs (Statutory Instruments, the name given to this form of secondary legislation) before parliament since January 2020, of which 546, or 31%, were covid related. Truly, covid is the enabling epidemic that just keeps on giving.
What are the three most important things for human life? The first is fuel, an umbrella term for the food water and oxygen, without which we soon perish. Cut off the oxygen, and we are dead within minutes, cut off food and water, and we are dead within days or weeks. The second, Dr No suggests, is shelter. We are the naked ape, and without shelter, we soon find ourselves in harms way. Without shelter, we are at the mercy of the sun’s burning rays and winter’s icy blasts, and again, sooner or later, we will perish. We need shelter to sleep, and to recuperate from illness and injury. These two things, fuel and shelter, are tangible external things, that we get from our environment, and give us our physical health. The third most important thing could not be more different. It is, in its pure form, intangible and utterly abstract, and in this form, uniquely human, because we alone of all the species on earth have a name for it. It is called freedom.
“Even the perpetrators had to go one step at a time, completing each step before the realised that the next one was possible.” Clive James, Review of Holocaust (BBC1), 1978 Whither Covid Vaccines? Yesterday, Secretary of State for Health Sajid Jabbit confirmed in the Commons that Covid vaccination will be compulsory for all frontline NHS staff in England by next April. Rumour has it that J-Day will be set for the 1st April, an unfortunate choice, raising the question of whether Jabbit is a joker, or a fool, or perhaps even both. Certainly the Royal Colleges and Unions are up in arms, pointing out that banning qualified healthcare workers from working — a sure fire way to make enemies and alienate people — at a time of NHS crisis is foolish in the extreme. Many, including Dr No, have questioned the ethics of mandatory healthcare worker vaccination, but this is a tricky one, because of vaccine precedents in healthcare, even if those precedents were, and remain, a condition of employment, rather than a legal requirement. And then, last but by no means least, there is the prickly question of the medical evidence: do covid vaccines reduce the risk of covid transmission?
Let’s get the definitions out of the way. Unqualified, apartheid means the repugnant South African system of segregation by race. It comes “from Afrikaans, literally ‘separateness’, from Dutch apart ‘separate’ + -heid (equivalent of -hood)”: apart-hood. The word itself doesn’t make any reference to race, it just happened it arose in South Africa, and by its use there, unqualified, it came to mean racial apartheid. But the word — apartheid/apart-hood, or apartness, or separateness — can apply to any form of segregation. The phrase sexual apartheid makes perfect sense, segregation of the basis of sex. So to does the phrase religious apartheid, segregation on the basis of religion. And so too does the phrase covid apartheid, segregation on the basis of covid status. The repugnant state of racial apartheid can very meaningfully be found mirrored in the repugnant state of covid apartheid. Once you have separateness, or segregation, on the basis of this or that, you have apartheid; all that is necessary is to specify the basis of segregation, and then you have a fully formed phrase of clear meaning.
Forget Brexit, the real Project Fear kicked off in March last year, with SPI-B’s infamous “The perceived level of personal threat [from covid–19] needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”. Printed in bold in the original report, the directive launched a thousand messages that sailed freely past their intended target, the complacent, and went on to cause immense collateral damage among the timorous. Rained on day after day by this lurid torrent of “hard-hitting emotional messaging”, these nervous souls quickly became punch drunk, and lost the capacity for rational thought. Whole swathes of the population started to believe that covid–19 was a threat out of all proportion to any real risk. The extraordinary thing is they still believe covid–19 is a threat out of all proportion to any real risk. Let’s take a look at what happened.
The vexed question of domestic covid immunity passports remains in the balance. The general tone and drift of the government is that they are going to happen. Yesterday’s ID card munching journalist is today’s prime minister, ordering passport trials to go ahead. A recent Roadmap Review published by the government noted that covid immunity passports are ‘likely to become a feature of our lives until the threat from the pandemic recedes’, and that they ‘could have an important role to play…as a temporary measure’. At the same time, retailers and the hospitality sector have recoiled against the idea, even though the majority of their customers want them. Rather late in the day, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has come out with a mealy mouthed ‘can have a role, but important to strike the right balance’ type statement that merely adds more mud to the already turbid waters. A while back, the Royal Society produced a similar sitting on the fence report. On twitter, covid immunity passport nuts queue up to post ‘TBH, I don’t really want to eat in the same places as anti vaccine loons’ and ‘the only people refusing [vaccines] are idiots, if two-tier society means less idiots around me I’m fine with that’. Truly, we are already a nation divided — and about to be ruled.
“Model individuals will be commended in accordance with regulations, and extensive publicity will be conducted through the news media to create a trustworthy and glorious public opinion atmosphere.”State Council of the People’s Republic of China (2014)Heartening as it is to hear some political opposition to covid passports, even if some of the opponents are a mixed bag of chancers and free-loaders, it still seems — assuming the polls are right — the majority of the Britons favour the introduction of covid passports for a wide range of broadly defined social activities. Expressed opposition, on the other hand, is low, never more than one in four of those polled. If the public gets what it wants, which seems likely, given the Tories’ penchant for policy that pushes on open doors, then Franklin’s ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’ will have finally achieved in full its true modern meaning.
The deadline for submitting evidence to the covid immunity passports review is fast approaching. Responses must be filed by 11:45pm on 29 March 2021. Don’t be put off by the formal language of a ‘call for evidence to inform the review into COVID-status certification’, this is also an ‘open consultation’. The government says it is keen to ‘ensure that the [review] recommendations reflect a broad range of interests and concerns’ and that it will ‘welcome views from all respondents’. So if you have a view on covid passports, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. For good measure, you might also send a copy of the email to your MP. You can find his or her email address here.
If you asked a group of people whether making wearing front seat belts in cars compulsory helped save lives, many would answer in the affirmative. Ask how they know the answer, and many will say some variant of obvs innit: it’s obvious, it stands to reason, it’s common sense. The law, when it came in, in January 1983, was hugely controversial, but the controversy wasn’t about effectiveness, it was about liberty. It was the first time the government had passed a law that sooner or later would affect just about everyone, requiring them to do something not to protect others, but to protect themselves. Since we were at the time, and still are for matter, free to drink ourselves to death, or smoke ourselves to death, it was argued we should also be free to smash ourselves to death. The state had no business interfering in personal decisions; doing so marked the beginning of the nanny state, from which there would be no turning back. Promoters of the law claimed that up to a thousand lives be saved every year, and there would be important secondary benefits, including reduced demand on the NHS.
Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face — forever — might be apt for the later stages of authoritarianism, but it isn’t for the earlier stages, when Elliot’s not with a bang but a whimper fits better. If we put aside revolution and invasion, nations don’t convulse into authoritarianism, the authorities start with baby steps, which then get bolder as time goes by, until in time they become a march. It is Martin Niemöller’s first they came for the communists, then they came for the incurables. Unpopular groups are marginalised and criminalised. Enabling acts, acts which enable other laws to be made without parliamentary scrutiny, are used to ram through decrees even when, as is often the case, the party in government has a working majority. And then, before long, steps are taken to provide the means to silence those who oppose the government.