THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

Things like the current Coronavirus pandemic bring out the best in people. Thousands of people in the UK have volunteered formally or informally to help those self isolating, collecting prescriptions, ferrying medicines, doing shopping for vulnerable neighbours etc. and we all hope those attitudes prevail.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that only a few months ago the nations of the UK were so divided over the EU, climate change protests, how and whether austerity should end etc.  All important issues that will no doubt return at some stage, but hopefully in a more sober and contemplative fashion than raucous tabloid and social media hysteria.

But there are other instincts at work in the human and times like this regrettably give excuses for those less praiseworthy instincts to be released. Some people look to run a black market in scarce goods by creating that scarcity and leeching off the misfortunes of others. Others take the opportunity to exercise urges to control and restrain.

Derbyshire police yesterday released footage of drone photography of the Peak District and marked various people out walking as engaging in ‘non-essential’ activity. In an interview with Evan Davis on BBC Radio 4’s P.M. programme yesterday the Silver Commander for the Derbyshire Force’s response to Covid-19, Steve Pont, was asked why they had done this as ‘there’s no law preventing people driving to the Peak District to walk is there?’

He replied quite clearly ‘Yes there is’. He said people were only allowed out for 4 reasons and this contravened that prohibition.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman when asked later unequivocally confirmed that driving somewhere to exercise or walk your dog did NOT contravene the law.

Now I can see Derbyshire Police, indeed any police force with an area of outstanding natural beauty do not want to be inundated with thousands of visitors, and no doubt the locals feel the same. And if visitors did turn up in those numbers they would no doubt be contravening social distancing and probably group gathering rules. But on the footage there were two car arks shown, one with seven cars spaced very well apart and another with six cars. The walkers were in pairs or in one case a threesome which looked like a family household.

The overdramatic text over the shots claimed all these were inessential – the Cabinet Office clearly thinks they fall well within the current definition of essential for health.

Now if this were simply a case of intrusive surveillance for inappropriate purposes, a waste of police resources and a breach of privacy it would be bad enough but Derbyshire police decided they had the power to put up road blocks to deny public access to the Peak District. They do not have that power. That way lies a police state. The police do not make the law in Britain, they enforce the clear will of the people as expressed through Parliament.

No-one is questioning the idea that serious threats demand serious responses. Those responses however, need to be scrutinised and challenged where necessary and kept under rigorous review; that is why Parliament insisted on shortening the period these draconian laws may exist before they are scrutinised and if necessary renewed. The rule of law is fundamental to the ideals that underpin this society. Instincts to subvert that must be resisted.

Unfortunately the interviewer failed to challenge Superintendent Pont and allowed him to misstate the law with impunity. Fortunately The Guardian and Civil Liberties groups asked the right questions and reported the truth.

This isn’t a loophole; neither the letter nor the spirit of the law was being flouted. What is safer for the public? For a few hardy souls to drive to the Peak District, park a good distance from other vehicles and walk miles from habitation and hundreds of yards from other citizens? Or to step into a crowded city street and jog past others breathing heavily in close proximity to others?

This speaks more of a desire to control and to stop people enjoying themselves for the sake of it rather than any sensible public health reason.

Yes, we must be safe from, and defeat, the Coronavirus threat, but like other threats, like terrorism, not at the expense of doing more damage to society in the long run than the threat itself.

What’s that got to do with writing? Writing is about many things, but at its heart is the communication of ideas and feelings of the human spirit. Where actions would damage or crush that spirit, whether by design or by careless surrender to fear, writers have a duty to challenge those actions and those who perpetrate them.

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