State Intervention in the Coronavirus Pandemic: Personal Liberties and the Public Good

(Photo: Hong Kong Review of Books)

By Alex Meredith – Regular Contributor

Coronavirus has brought profound and substantial changes to UK politics and the functioning of government, with greater amount of state intervention in the social life of ordinary people than in any other time of peace. Enforced lockdowns, (although arguably a more liberal one than compared to other countries such as Albania or the Philippines), the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport, shops and takeaways, with a penalty of £100 if failing to comply. Even more recently, the government appears to be taking a strong stance on obesity, with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledging Britons to lose five pounds to spare a £100 million cost for the NHS. Measures introduced include forcing larger scale food industries, which employ more than 250 people, to have accurate calorie counts on food and drink purchases, as well as banning unhealthy products by supermarket checkouts and replacing them with healthy alternatives. In addition, adverts for junk food on television will be banned before the 9PM watershed to prevent appeal to children, who would most likely to develop unhealthy eating habits going forward.

Coronavirus has brought profound and substantial changes to UK politics and the functioning of government, with greater amount of state intervention in the social life of ordinary people than in any other time of peace. Enforced lockdowns, (although arguably a more liberal one than compared to other countries such as Albania or the Philippines), the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport, shops and takeaways, with a penalty of £100 if failing to comply. Even more recently, the government appears to be taking a strong stance on obesity, with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledging Britons to lose five pounds to spare a £100 million cost for the NHS. Measures introduced include forcing larger scale food industries, which employ more than 250 people, to have accurate calorie counts on food and drink purchases, as well as banning unhealthy products by supermarket checkouts and replacing them with healthy alternatives. In addition, adverts for junk food on television will be banned before the 9PM watershed to prevent appeal to children, who would most likely to develop unhealthy eating habits going forward.

The fundamental question is, given Boris Johnson prides himself on holding Libertarian values, with various articles throughout his journalistic career being highly critical of the ‘nanny state’ – why is he suddenly initiating a greater amount of state intervention on people’s lives, as well as implementing consequences for those who do not follow them? Has the coronavirus altered the Prime Minister’s perspective on how the government should run the country, given that he himself was hospitalised when he had the Coronavirus and admits that his weight was a factor?

Of course, the unprecedented economic intervention by the government is still a rare sight for a Prime Minister like Boris Johnson, but has some parallels with the intervention of the state following the 2008 financial crash, in which banks such as Northern Rock, Lloyds TSB, and the Royal Bank of Scotland were bailed out by the New Labour government led by Gordon Brown. During their time in power between 1997 and 2010, their economic policy was vastly modelled based on free market economics as seen during the Thatcher era between 1979 and 1990, which called for a more individualistic approach and minimal to no state intervention in the economy. Yet at the time of the financial crash, the government were forced to act in taking over financial sectors of the economy. In today’s economic crisis, which economists have predicted is the worst economic recession for more than 300 years, the government have also taken unprecedented action with the furlough scheme, in which employees who cannot go into work are having up to eighty percent of their wages paid for by the government. Rishi Sunak’s recent mini budget, as well as the Prime Minister’s speech in Dudley, called for a major recovery and build programme for the entire United Kingdom. Key features include the no stamp duty threshold being increased to half a million pounds, as well as record amounts of investment pledged for infrastructure and public services, drawing some comparisons with former U.S president Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930’s following the Wall Street Crash. As well as this, there is also the implementation of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, in which customers in registered restaurants can receive a fifty percent discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks on every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday between the 3rd and 31st of August (perhaps contradictory with the tackling obesity strategy at the same time). Although these measures are evidently more drastic than those implemented during the financial crash, since the Second World War, the economy has not seen this level of intervention and been in such a recession ever since.

Yet we might pull into question that, for a government that had long stated during the 2019 general election campaign that a Labour government who pledged massive amounts of funding would do untold economic damage, is implementing similar measures today. Could it be for the fact that it is a temporary period to get through the economic hardships that the Coronavirus has brought, with more traditional fiscal economic policies brought in once the pandemic has been almost eradicated, or more broadly, has the Coronavirus led our government to recognise the potential value of state intervention for both the economy and society? Has the Libertarian Boris Johnson been replaced with a more interventionist, semi-socialist Boris Johnson, or will the more traditional Boris make a sharp return to public life once the country is more on the verge of returning back to normal? We all know he is not a socialist, but is Johnson adapting the notion of conservatism to suit his own personal agenda, one of which was vastly different from his two most recent predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron? If so, the development of ‘Johnsonomics’ will be one blended with more populist ideals and parallels between that of Thatcher, Trump, and that of what Jeremy Corbyn would have likely implemented had he been Prime Minister.  Perhaps Johnson admitting that he is overweight and that it played a factor in his near-death experience from Covid-19 has reimagined his views on this particular subject to a much greater extent than before, and he is transferring this onto wider society for the public good. However, when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, from 1st June 2008, he introduced a ban on consumption of alcohol on all TFL services, suggesting that he is prepared to intervene on such issues when it appears as though there may be a benefit to society as a whole, despite arguably in reducing certain liberties and freedoms to a limited extent. Even more noticeable, increasingly mandatory face mask wearing contradicts Johnson’s argument in his controversial Telegraph article two years ago on women having the right to wear whatever they want and his remarks on the Burqa, in which he was highly critical of the notion of having to cover up yet recognised it was a personal choice as to whether to do so. Yet the notion to make face masks compulsory on public transport, in shops, as well as potentially in open spaces, has undermined this very argument of wearing what one individual would choose. Through this, a debate could be raised as to whether Johnson is placing the public good before personal liberty.

Many hardcore Libertarians have frequently referred the well-known political philosopher John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’, meaning that actions that do not inflict harm upon others but the individual self, should be left alone, and so in examples like obesity as well as other actions such as smoking, it is an individual decision that would have virtually no adverse effect on the rest of the population whatsoever and should be a matter of lifestyle choice for most people. The state should therefore only intervene on areas where the harm principle is likely to apply to broader aspects of society, such as criminalising assault, theft, hate crime etc, or prioritising the safety of its citizens in light of global security concerns, such as the use of armed police and the shoot to kill policy in light of terrorist attacks. Therefore, in this context, there should be no ‘nanny’ state to intervene on areas where it is just the individual making a lifestyle decision that wouldn’t impact on anyone else. Yet a further justification for this intervention, is in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which multiple studies have linked obesity with the greater risk of dying from Covid19, along with the desire to save the NHS which has long been the government’s key message since lockdown began back on the 23rd of March, again suggesting it is for the greater good for society as a whole, and thus is worth the intervention to benefit the individual selves.

Like many aspects of human life, Covid-19 has massively altered the role and perception of the state in civil societies, and has created a debate as to whether it is worth trading various personal liberties for greater protection in light of the pandemic and beyond a Hobbesian state of nature. The various anti-lockdown and anti-mask wearing protests that have sparked up recently, along with the initial consensus that those who opposed such greater forms of state intervention were those who did not value human life significantly, have hinted the further re-imagining of politics and political theory that will shape our future going forward. But as the virus is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future, through the rise of localised lockdowns, will the liberty versus interventionist trade off widen further, or will the ‘new normal’ be interpreted in a pre-Covid format, with very subtle differences now that lockdown restrictions have mostly lifted?

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