Since March, the UK has been subject to greater limitations on personal liberty than at any other peacetime period in modern times. I’m not in any way criticising the imposition of these restrictions–if anything the UK’s relaxed approach to COVID-19 compared to other countries explains why our country has performed so badly in getting the disease under control. Viruses can’t spread themselves, only people spread contagion. That’s why such restrictions are necessary, because one person exercising their liberties in a way which spreads the disease imposes upon the liberties of a great many more.
My issue isn’t the rules, it’s how they’re enforced. From the start, there has been confusion over who actually had the power to undertake enforcement on the ground, with authorities only being notified after public announcements had been made and on occasion with the relevant changes to the law happening days after the rule had been brought into effect.
At the press conference where the Government announced that face-masks would be mandatory on public transport, a journalist asked about enforcement and was told the Government were just expecting people to comply. It didn’t work. After all, if we could rely upon people to do always what was right we wouldn’t need laws in the first place, never mind the police. That’s why when discussing on the radio the plan to make face-masks compulsory in shops, I made it clear that without someone to enforce it the rule was pointless.
Instead of clarity, we have ended up with a confusing mishmash of responsibilities and powers for enforcement spread between Crawley Borough Council, West Sussex County Council, Sussex Police, and Public Health England. Where the enforcement duty begins and ends on any given issue is often unclear even to those running one of the organisations.
In principle having everyone pull together is great, in practice the different remits of each organisation results in different ways of approaching issues, creating uncertainty when clarity is needed. The need for the Government to rationalise responsibilities on the ground is clear, the question is if that will happen before disaster strikes.