Coronavirus quarantine will fail if people feel villainised
- Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Police are not overlords, they are citizens in uniform, argues JAMES BALL. They need to guide us through this crisis, not force us.
In the days shortly before the UK government eventually decided to lock down much of the country – which was still only a handful of weeks ago, even if it feels much longer – it faced substantial criticism for its apparent delay and indecision over what course of action it should take.
Faced with the rapidly rising death toll in Italy, especially in Lombardy, many – reasonably – saw only one sensible course of action in front of them: to take similar strict quarantine measures as urgently as possible, to try to keep the UK tally below that of Italy, even at that early stage.
The government never offered a single clear public explanation for its thinking, leading to a vacuum which let dark rumours stir.
The explanations briefed out via the lobby generally seemed to centre either on the UK modelling suggesting it was still premature to enact strict social distancing measures – until the calculations in the Imperial College model changed – and fears that if the UK locked down too early, citizens would run out of patience and fail to comply with the government's instructions at the most critical moment.
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The immediate response to the government simply asking people to stay home, while not taking action to force or even recommend pubs, cafes, theatres, and similar venues to close, could certainly act to reinforce that view.
Far too many people simply carried on going out, seemingly either unaware of the government advice, or not bothered by it.
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This even continued after the venues closed, with scenes at weekends showing people packing into parks, flocking into food markets, and thronging in malls. We shouldn't jump to villainise such people – they are more a sign that something has gone wrong with the messaging, or the strategy, than fools to be mocked.
The government guidance was changing seemingly daily, was extremely complex, and at least initially was backed up by almost nothing in the way of mass-scale public information campaigns.
But the early signs certainly didn't seem to suggest a nation was waiting to happily comply with instructions to radically change its way of life, and largely shut itself down to nothing but the absolute essentials.
Given that backdrop, the early days of the lockdown seem to have gone as well as could be possibly expected.
Civil society doesn't seem on the edge of breakdown, many more people are staying home, supermarkets are enforcing social distancing and communities are supporting people unable to leave home due to shielding requirements.
Those changes are borne out in the statistics: official figures suggest around 70% fewer motor journeys are happening than usual (impressive given lots of food supplies travel by road freight), national rail passenger figures are down more than 80% and Tube users down 90%. People who should stay home overwhelmingly seem to be staying home.
Against this calm backdrop, reports that some in the police and public authorities seem to be overreacting feel fairly trivial – a source of news to roll your eyes at, more than a source of real worry.
The individual instances are petty enough. The Association of Convenience Stores, which represents the country's corner shops, complained that over-zealous environmental protection officers had been warning store owners against selling Easter eggs – saying that these were 'non-essential'.
Sure enough the officials were enforcing an imaginary law, and an imaginary piece of guidance, and weary press officers at 10 Downing Street quickly batted it down, stressing that if a shop had been deemed 'essential' and so could remain open – which corner shops had – it could sell whatever it usually sold.
Similar over-zealousness abounds. In Edgware, footage emerged of a police officer berating a shop worker who was chalking the pavement to mark how customers could queue while remaining appropriately distanced from one another. The retailer reasonably noted it was chalk, would wash out, and was serving to enforce government guidelines to keep people safe. The officer rebutted with the fact there is a law against chalking pavements, and what would happen if we ignored laws like that at a time of crisis? Sadly for him even his own superiors were not impressed by that reasoning when the footage emerged, and no ticket for criminal damage was issued.
There will always be problems with individuals when they are given new powers or a new rulebook. Some are fussy and pedantic, sticking to the letter of what is in front of them instead of its purpose.
Some – very reasonably – will be confused by the complexity of the government guidance, and how it often goes further than, or even contradicts, what's in the actual laws they have passed, though it is of course their job to know the letter of the law. And a small minority appear to simply enjoy enforcing rules and imposing power on others.
That is sad enough at an individual level, but can quickly become disturbing when it rises to the level of becoming institutional. This seems to be happening with Derbyshire police, who first posted social media footage taken from a police drone of citizens doing such nefarious things as walking their dog, or stopping to take a photo while walking.
The force's reasoning in that instance was that these groups were breaking a law Derbyshire police seem to have imagined, against driving to exercise – which at the time wasn't even against government advice.
The force then compounded their weird behaviour by posting that they had dyed a natural beauty spot – an azure blue pond – black, to dissuade people from swimming in it, during the coronavirus crisis. Given the pool is actually alkaline run-off from an old quarry and dangerous to swim in, the force has actually been dyeing it for years, why pretend now it's a quarantine measure?
Most police forces aren't behaving anything like Derbyshire – they understand the need for a calm approach, appealing to reason and to people's better nature.
We will need those types of officer to prevail if the UK is to sustain a lockdown that will save lives.
One week shut in at home is almost a treat. It becomes something quite different as people are forced to live off either diminished earnings or none at all, with no social releases, cooped in with the same people, having to queue 40 minutes every time they need to go to the supermarket. The honeymoon phase of quarantine is rapidly coming to its end.
Sustaining it beyond that needs a sense of shared purpose, that we're doing this for each other, and that we're all in it together. Fostering that has, in theory at least, been at the core of policing since its earliest days. Policing by consent has been codified in the UK's system since at least 1829.
Even back then, new constables were handed a set of nine principles, including that 'the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect'.
Police are never supposed to be our overlords – they are supposed to be citizens in uniform, representatives of the people, not of government.
Trying to live up to this perhaps impossible standard is more important now than it has been for decades. If quarantine is something that feels imposed on us, first by diktat and then by force, it will fail – and coronavirus will surge.
We all need to remember what, and who, we're doing this for. Police should be helping to remind the public of that – not the other way around.
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