Are we becoming a police state?

3 April 2020

Tim Dieppe comments on the state of our freedoms during the coronavirus crisis.

Former Supreme Court Justice, Jonathan Sumption, QC, warned this week that we are in danger of becoming a police state. He was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 World at One on Monday, and it is worth reflecting on some of his comments.

This is how freedoms are lost

Lord Sumption explained that the lesson of history is that freedoms are lost in exchange for protection from a threat.

The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria. Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.”

Lord Sumption does not deny that the threat from Covid-19 is serious, but questions whether the measures are appropriate:

“So yes this is serious and yes it’s understandable that people cry out to the government. But the real question is: is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister.”

‘This is what a police state is like’

Police in Derbyshire were criticised for releasing drone footage of people out walking in the Peak District. Lord Sumption was scathing about this, describing it as “disgraceful”, and pointing out that going for a walk in the countryside is not illegal – it is just something that government ministers have said they prefer that people not do. When the police start enforcing guidance, we are in the realms of a police state:

“This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

Derbyshire police subsequently admitted that Lord Sumption was right and they did not have authority to stop people from walking in the Peak District.

Phone tracking

The government has been given legal permission to use mobile phone data to track whether people are complying with coronavirus regulations. The government can then watch where you go and how often to travel to see whether you are in compliance. This extreme invasion of privacy is deemed worthwhile because of the health risks at the present time.


Several police forces have set up websites encouraging people to inform on their neighbours if they see them breaching the coronavirus regulations. This means that we now face the prospect of law-abiding citizens worrying whether a neighbour might report them for leaving the house more than once a day! In fact, the BBC has reported that a police force has had a surge in calls from people reporting their neighbours for “going out for a second run”.

No parliamentary scrutiny

What is more, with parliament now disbanded, the government is now acting with no scrutiny or accountability. After explicitly telling parliament that there would be no changes to abortion rules, the government then went ahead and made changes shortly after parliament was closed. Changes that would most likely not have been possible if parliament was sitting. The government is therefore now not acting democratically. Is there really no possible way with modern technology for parliament to meet and scrutinise these things?

Unimaginable a few weeks ago

Just a few weeks ago, such restrictions on freedom in the UK were unimaginable. I would never have believed that within a few weeks we would have people reporting their neighbours for leaving the house more than once in a day. If someone had told me this would happen, I would have dismissed them as an irrational crackpot. Yet here we are!

I understand the fears. I understand how dangerous this virus is. I know that the nation needs to take action to try to stop its spread. But stopping people from going for a run more than once a day? Just how many lives will that save?

It is incredible how quickly this has happened. Freedoms not fought for are freedoms forfeited. Our freedoms are being forfeited before our eyes in real time. Freedoms are hard to obtain, and easy to lose. I hope and pray that we will recover them and recover them soon. I pray that the Lord would have mercy on us. Our nation is spiritually sick and needs the healing that only God can provide.

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