Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Fundamentals Of Global Biosecurity Governance Are Under Construction

Telegraph |  When listing his regrets about the pandemic, Boris Johnson has started to tell friends that he was let down by his own liberal instincts. That he hoped for too long that Britain could, like Sweden, fight the virus through consent rather than diktat – getting through this without abolishing basic freedoms. His fear at the time was irreversibility. If sacred principles were jettisoned in an emergency, would they ever be restored? Might he end up unleashing something he’d struggle to control?

It was a good question. Covid levels are now so low in Britain that the Prime Minister could have proclaimed the second wave over yesterday. Instead, he asked for his Government’s emergency powers to be extended for another six months. Why, if there is no longer an emergency? Sir Keir Starmer didn’t ask. Instead, he voted with the Tories. Even Labour, it seems, has grown used to a life without much in the way of debate, scrutiny, opposition or explanation.

Big announcements continue to come via people like Prof Neil Ferguson, who still seems to have a Rasputin-like hold over the Government. Earlier this week, he said he thought it may be unwise to book any foreign holidays this summer. This is big news, because what he thinks today tends to become Matt Hancock’s policy tomorrow. “We’re run by scientist groupthink,” says one minister. “But that won’t change until the polls change.”

Lockdown remains very popular, to the Prime Minister’s initial amazement. But he talks now as if he has been given a new mandate from the electorate. “My impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this,” he told MPs this week. “Human beings instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and nasty to them. They can see, collectively, that Covid is a threat. They want us, as their Government – and me as the Prime Minister – to take all the actions I can to protect them.”

The creation of a “Health Security Agency” was announced this week. An unusual name: British “security” services have not, so far, tended to involve public health officials. But perhaps the language is simply catching up with reality: that the fundamentals of a biosecurity state are now under construction. This is what ministers think the public now want: a big shift in the dial away from liberty so the state can better provide security. It’s happening incrementally, with no real debate.

Until recently, no government would have thought it was expected to control a virus. The wildest of the pandemic plans did not involve lockdown. But Wuhan showed what public health figures could “get away with” as Prof Ferguson put it – which changed everything. The definition of what government can “get away with” is being expanded week after week.

Controlling the circulation of viruses can, logically, be done by controlling what people do. So the old inalienable rights – freedom of assembly, of protest, of school education, to leave the country – become privileges to be removed or restored as ministers see fit. This might be the remit of the Health Security Agency. In Whitehall, people are thinking the unthinkable: one idea is citizens sending their temperature in every day using the NHS app. 

Take digital identity cards. They’re common in China, where citizens are given a colour code taking in health status which decides how freely they can move. Might ministers get away with vaccine identity cards here? “We are not a papers-carrying country,” Hancock said in January. Now, Michael Gove is busy working on vaccine passports, which the Prime Minister says we may need to go to the pub. Or, in some cases, get a job.

Hancock was right, though: at the heart of this is a question of what kind of country we are – and whether liberal Britain became a casualty of the pandemic. Opinion polls show support for vaccine identity cards, curfews, border closures, the works. When Tony Blair proposed identity cards in 2004, Johnson said he’d eat his in front of anyone who asked him to produce it. “Extremism in the defence of liberty,” he wrote, “is no vice.” Blair now is back as the public face of vaccine identity cards, as if he wants to hammer home that, in the end, he won.

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