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When the Government plays nurse, it’s sure to make things worse


THE thousands of poor physical specimens rejected by the British Army for the Boer War revealed the appalling health of much of the nation in the 19th century.   

Attempts by the state to remedy this (one being the introduction of free school meals) were less an altruistic gesture born out of concern for the working class, but rather a realisation that a nation, let alone an empire, required fighting-fit young men to protect it – fit enough, at least, to die in battle. 

Over a century later, it would be prudent to remain sceptical of government concerns for our wellbeing. Today the National Health Service has transformed into the National Covid Service,  with millions of Britons denied access to potentially lifesaving screenings, diagnoses and treatments.  

As oncologists warn of a cancer ‘ticking time bomb’ and children as young as eight struggle with suicidal thoughts, our government simultaneously admonishes us daily to ‘save lives’. One would not need to be a cynic to doubt the sincerity of their words.  

When punitive measures are introduced for those who fail to submit to medical procedures which will allegedly save these lives, then cynicism should turn to serious concern.  

Already, those in France who refuse a Covid vaccination are facing the removal of their civil liberties and societal exclusion. If French pushback is minimal, then expect this medical fascism to cross La Manche at breakneck speed. 

Public health protection as a gateway to authoritarianism, however, is nothing new. Whilst reaching its zenith under the Nazi interpretation of Volksgesundheit, Britain, too has used national health concerns to garner support for distasteful policies.  

Although the mission creep of ‘flatten the curve’ is unprecedented, using public health to legislate for increasing social apartheid achieved considerable success in the Victorian era and the early decades of the 20th century. 

The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869, for example, addressed the rising prevalence of venereal disease,  but ultimately led to the incarceration of thousands of women often merely suspected of soliciting.   

Subjected to invasive medical procedures, the women were detained in ‘lock hospitals’ for months until they were deemed ‘clean’ enough to be released. All for the greater good of the nation.  

Renowned utilitarian John Stuart Mill, however, called for the Acts’ repeal, insisting that public health concerns were no justification for removing ‘the security of personal liberty’. 

Sir Harcourt Johnstone MP observed that whilst each Act scarcely differed from its predecessor, ‘they have become more intensely despotic in character as they advanced’. Mission creep, Sir Harcourt. Mission creep. 

Progressively restrictive legislation was also achieved under the guise of education for the learning-disabled. The 1886 Idiots Act encouraged segregation and institutionalisation of ‘feeble-minded’ children.   

The 1893 and 1899 Elementary Education Acts extended this to include blind, deaf and epileptic children. By the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, not only imbeciles but ‘moral imbeciles’ – habitual drunkards, the unruly – were at threat of being indefinitely institutionalised.   

Parliament overwhelmingly voted in support of the Act despite the draconian powers it would grant the state.  One of the lone voices of protest in the House was that of Colonel Josiah Wedgwood – great-great grandson of the potter Josiah Wedgwood – who expressed concern about the ‘perpetual imprisonment’ of those who had committed no crime.   

‘The House’ stated Wedgwood, ‘should put its foot down firmly on the growing authority of specialists in the legislation of the country.’  Quite so. 

The most shameful periods in a nation’s history do not emerge from a vacuum. They are legislated, implemented and enthusiastically supported until someone with integrity is brave enough to speak out.  When the state uses the smokescreen of public health to drive through an authoritarian agenda, it is time to stand up and be counted. 

The infamous three weeks to flatten the curve has become 16 months to bulldoze our civil liberties, to remove what we once believed to be inalienable rights. 

Beware the Government’s concern for your wellbeing. 

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Mary McGreechin
Mary McGreechin
Mary McGreechin is a medical historian and researcher from Glasgow.

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