LAST week, the Government launched its new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Billed as ‘combining key elements of Public Health England with NHS Test and Trace, including the Joint Biosecurity Centre’, it would be easy to dismiss this as a sort of tidying-up process, bringing together the different government agencies that have formed part of its response to Covid.
But for those of us who have been deeply troubled by the interventions of government, this new department represents the realisation of what we always feared: The institutionalisation of a kind of health fascism.
At the heart of the problem lies the assumption that illness presents a security risk. We have seen this principle underpin government policy throughout and it has been used to justify some of the most restrictive, illiberal measures our country has ever seen.
The use of a lockdown in itself speaks of an assumed security threat, as this strategy was previously only associated with prisons, to control rioting inmates.
Then there was the use of house arrest for anyone found with symptoms – a measure formerly reserved for criminals. The launch of track and trace, effectively government surveillance, also spoke of a perceived security concern. Indeed, the use of statutory instruments, the courts and the police to manage the virus all consolidate this impression.
Covid passports are a further expression of this new mentality. It is no surprise that Israel, already a security state, had its Green Pass up and running with relative ease.
And then there’s the ultimate measure to defend against any perceived national threat: Border closure. Only in wartime, when we faced a real, physical enemy, was travel restricted.
Gone are the days when being ill was just bad luck; the infected person now presents a security threat.
This is not to say, of course, that Covid does not present any kind of risk. There was concern that the NHS would be overwhelmed, and of course, no one is denying that people have died of Covid.
But this is a public health matter, not a security one, and so should have been dealt with accordingly. Indeed, the pre-Covid pandemic planning understood this, favouring a more nuanced approach, and in doing so, did not undermine our liberal traditions.
Boris Johnson claims that his liberal instincts let him down – that locking down was the only way. But were those instincts ever really put to the test? Was he not, instead, overcome by panic in the face of a shrill media; the original plan ditched in favour of China’s approach?
This, of course, is where we are to locate the genesis of our changed relationship with illness. It should come as no surprise, given that the country whose policy we followed elevates the State above the individual; that it views the citizen as a mere instrument; a country for whom mass surveillance is the logical outworking of a paranoid dictatorship obsessed with control.
Putting their own totalitarian spin on illness, China’s communist leaders imbued a new philosophy in the countries that emulated it.
Illness has been transformed from something we learn to live with, to something that must be controlled; it has transformed the sick person from someone who’s just been unlucky, to a kind of social deviant.
This new orthodoxy is beginning to percolate through society. It is apparent in the consternation of those unfortunate enough to have caught the disease, as they insist that they ’kept the rules’, as if needing to justify themselves.
Perhaps more seriously, it is influencing new legislation. Consider the new policing Bill which criminalises people who pass on disease. As Francis Hoar comments: ‘We have this situation where going out in public and meeting without wearing a mask or socially distancing is somehow an appalling crime of putting people at risk of disease’.
Public health is now clearly conflated with public order. I was glad that Fraser Nelson drew attention to this situation in a recent article in the Telegraph.
Commenting on UKHSA, he notes that ‘British “security” services have not, so far, tended to involve public health officials’. I was also glad to see that he recognised, with some concern that, ‘it’s happening incrementally, with no real debate’.
It is slightly frustrating, because lockdown sceptics have, in fact, been trying to have this debate for the last year. Portrayed as ‘conspiracy theorists’ or ‘Covid-deniers’, we have struggled to make our voices heard despite having perceived the end from the beginning.
No matter, it is encouraging when the mainstream start to catch up (although Nelson still maintains support for the first lockdown, not really appreciating that it’s all connected).
With a turning tide, we must continue to push back against every manifestation of this dystopian, mendacious approach to public health. We must insist that illness is part of the human condition – something we learn to live with, not something we can fully control.
Certainly, being ill is miserable and we do not want to be cavalier in the face of death. But we desperately need to get things back in perspective and insist that it’s okay to be sick and even (heresy of heresies) unwittingly infect someone else.
We need to stop framing illness as a security threat and return to a more measured approach – one that befits a liberal democracy.