‘It is clear that, beyond the emergency situation linked to a certain virus which may in the future leave room for another, at issue is the design of a paradigm of government whose effectiveness will far exceed that of all forms of government known so far in the political history of the West.’
— Giorgio Agamben, Biosecurity and Politics (11 May, 2020)
Table of Contents
- The Registration of COVID-19 Deaths
- The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020
- The Guidance on Social Distancing
- The COVID Support Force
- The Lockdown of the UK
- The Coronavirus Act 2020
- The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020
- The Police State
- The 5-Pillar Testing Strategy
- The Five Conditions for Lifting the Lockdown of the UK
- The Virtual Parliament
- The Track and Trace Mission
- The Exploitation of the Coronavirus Crisis
- The COVID Alert System
- The State of Emergency as a Paradigm of Government
- The Foreseeable Future
1. The Registration of COVID-19 Deaths
In my seventh and most recent article about the coronavirus crisis, Manufacturing Consensus, I followed in detail how the official death toll from COVID-19 in the UK is being exaggerated many times above the actual deaths that can be attributed to the disease with any medical certainty through the creation and implementation of the following definitions and guidelines:
- On 5 March, the Department of Health and Social Care, employing a statutory instrument that would not require resolution by Parliament for 40 days from when it returned from suspension on 21 April, added both COVID-19 and SARs-CoV-2 to the list of ‘notifiable’ diseases and causative agents that medical practitioners have a statutory duty to record on a death certificate, as they do not, for example, with pneumonia, the primary cause of death from respiratory diseases.
- On 25 March, the World Health Organisation created two new codes for COVID-19 deaths distinguishing whether the deceased had or had not tested positive for SARs-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease but whose case fatality rate it is impossible to establish until the entire population of the UK has been tested to establish the number of cases of infection.
- On 31 March, the Office for National Statistics announced that, in order for a death to be included in its records of COVID-19 deaths, the disease merely has to be ‘mentioned’ anywhere on the death certificate, without it being ‘the main cause of death’. This includes as a ‘contributing’ factor when ‘combined with other health conditions’, or when a doctor has diagnosed a ‘possible’ case of COVID-19 based on ‘relevant symptoms’ but with no test for SARs-CoV-2 having been conducted, or when the deceased tested positive for SARs-CoV-2 but a post mortem hasn’t established the actual cause of death.
- On 10 April, the Care Quality Commission introduced a ‘new way’ to understand whether COVID-19 was ‘involved in the death’ of someone in a care home. This merely requires a statement from the care home provider that COVID-19 was ‘suspected’, and which ‘may or may not’ correspond to a medical diagnosis, a positive test result for SARs-CoV-2, or even be reflected in the death certificate.
- On 20 April, the World Health Organisation issued guidelines to medical practitioners instructing them that, if COVID-19 is the ‘suspected’ or ‘probable’ or ‘assumed’ cause of death, it must always be recorded as the ‘underlying cause’ on death certificates, whether this ‘can be considered medically correct or not.’
- On 28 April, Public Health England announced that every death in the UK to occur in a care home or otherwise outside a hospital in which a positive test for SARs-CoV-2 has been made pre- or post-mortem will be added both retrospectively and in the future to the official number of COVID-19 deaths.
- On the same day, the National Health Service announced that it will include on its list of COVID-19 deaths all deaths where there has been no positive test for SARs-CoV-2 but where COVID-19 has been entered on the death certificate as the ‘underlying cause of death’.
- On the same day, the Office for National Statistics and the Care Quality Commission issued a joint transparency statement clarifying that their recording of a death as being the result of COVID-19 ‘may or may not correspond to a medical diagnosis or test result, or be reflected in the death certification.’
If not evidence of a concerted effort by the World Health Organisation, the UK Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, the National Health Service, the Care Quality Commission and the Office for National Statistics to conceal the true number of deaths that can attributed with any medical accuracy or diagnostic certainty to COVID-19, and instead to exaggerate that number many times over, this should at the very least raise questions about the deliberately inaccurate definitions, intentionally misleading guidelines and politically imposed changes to disease taxonomy through which the official figures on COVID-9 deaths the UK Government publishes every day have been calculated, and which are being unquestioningly disseminated by the media for consumption by a terrorised public.
One of the questions being asked of — or more accurately screamed at — those of us who argue that the causal agency of both SARs-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in the official death toll has been deliberately and grossly exaggerated is how the manufacture of a crisis that makes the Government of the UK look out of control and incompetent benefits that same Government? No less a thinker than the Slovenian philosopher, Zlavoj Žižek, raised exactly this question in response to the comment by the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, in one of a series of articles on the coronavirus crisis, that ‘once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation’ (a claim I discussed in my article on The Bio-Politics of COVID-19). The question I address in this article, therefore, is to what ends this fabrication of COVID-19 deaths is being placed by the UK Government and its corporate clients. Under the cloak of the lockdown of the UK justified by this wildly inaccurate death toll, what statutory instruments have been made into law, what Acts of Parliament have been passed without adequate scrutiny, what privatisation of public services have been implemented, what powers of surveillance and arrest have been extended to private security firms and police forces, what intrusions into our privacy and sharing of our personal data have been authorised without Parliamentary approval? In other words, what has the most right-wing and authoritarian Government in modern British history been doing while Parliament has been suspended, the electorate under virtual house arrest, and the media has undergone the final stage in its transformation into the propaganda arm of the UK state? And, finally, what does this mean for our future?
2. The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020
- On 10 February the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, exercising powers conferred by the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, without an impact assessment of the legislation having been made, and without a draft being laid before, or approved by resolution of, either of the Houses of Parliament, employed a statutory instrument that made the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 law with immediate effect. These Regulations:
- By reason of urgency, come into force immediately after they are made.
- Defines an ‘infected area’ as anywhere the Secretary of State has declared ‘there is known, or thought, to be’ sustained human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus; and that ‘isolation’ means at a person’s home, in a hospital, or at a facility designated for the purpose by the Secretary of State.
- Applies these Regulations until such time as the Health Secretary decides that the coronavirus no longer constitutes a ‘serious and imminent threat to public health’.
- Empowers the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant to detain a person for the purposes of screening and assessing them on the grounds that ‘they are, or may be’, infected with coronavirus.
- Empowers the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant to impose restrictions and requirements necessary to assess whether a person ‘presents, or could present,’ a risk of infecting or contaminating others.
- Compels a person to answer questions addressed to them by a registered public health consultant or officer about their health, travel history and other persons with whom they have been in contact; produce any document requested related to their health; allow a biological sample to be taken by them, including of their blood and respiratory secretions; and provide contact details for as long as they specify.
- Empowers the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant to impose further unidentified or defined restrictions and requirements at their discretion, in order to reduce or remove the risk of a person infecting or contaminating others.
- Empowers the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant to keep a person in isolation it there are reasonable grounds to believe that ‘they are, or may be’, infected or contaminated with coronavirus, and that it is necessary and proportionate to do so in order to reduce or remove the risk of them infecting or contaminating others.
- Empowers the Secretary of State to compel a person so detained or kept in isolation, or subject to restrictions and requirements, to comply with screening requirements.
- Empowers the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant to impose said restrictions and requirements on groups of persons.
- Extends the power of local authorities, under Health Protection (Part 2A Orders) Regulations 2010, to obtain an order from a Justice of the Peace to impose restrictions or requirements, to be made on application from a registered public health consultant or the Secretary of State.
- Allows a person to appeal to a magistrates’ court against the imposition of these Regulations.
- Empowers police constables ‘to use reasonable force’ when taking a person into custody in order to enforce their detention or isolation.
- Empowers police constables that have reasonable grounds to suspect that a person ‘is, or may be’ infected with coronavirus, or that there is a risk that a person might infect or contaminate others, or that it is necessary for the protection of other persons or for the maintenance of public safety, to direct a person to go to hospital or other place for screening, assessment or the imposition of other restrictions and requirements. For the purpose of which, a constable ‘may enter any place’, and ‘use reasonable force’ in the exercise of this Regulation. A person detained or isolated may be kept for up to 24 hours, at the end of which a police constable may authorise a further period not exceeding 24 hours.
- Makes it an ‘offence’ if a person fails to comply with a restriction or requirement, or absconds from detention or isolation, or obstructs anyone carrying out these Regulations, punishable on summary conviction by a fine not exceeding £1,000.
- Issued notice that these regulations will cease to have effect at the end of two years, which regulation does not affect the validity of ‘anything’ done in accordance with these Regulations.
- On 16 March, Parliament approved the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020.
It is not clear from these Regulations on what grounds, and with what qualifications, a police constable (only 38 per cent of whom have a degree, and presumably not all in epidemiology or as a general medical practitioner) is qualified to suspect whether a person ‘is, or may be’ infected with SARs-CoV-2, or ‘presents, or could present’ a risk. Not only do at least 80 per cent and most likely far higher of those infected with the virus develop no symptoms, but the symptoms of COVID-19 identified by the Government (coughing and high temperature) are indistinguishable from the symptoms of flu, the common cold, or any number of other illnesses not requiring the use of ‘reasonable force’ to detain and isolate the person coughing or sweating. As legislation for new powers of arrest, these Regulations were wide open to the widespread abuse with which they were duly enforced by the police across the UK.
3. The Guidance on Social Distancing
- On the same day, 16 March, Public Health England, the executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, issued its ‘Guidance on social distancing for everyone in the UK’. These guidelines were that the population should:
- Avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), include high temperature and/or a new and continuous cough;
- Avoid non-essential use of public transport when possible;
- Work from home where possible;
- Avoid large and small gatherings in public spaces;
- Avoid gatherings with friends and family;
- Use telephone or online services to contact a GP or other essential services.
This guidance compounded the lack of clarity in the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 by issuing prohibitions that went beyond what the police had the legal right to enforce, including the imposition of social distancing.
4. The COVID Support Force
- On 19 March, the Ministry of Defence announced the formation of the COVID Support Force. This comprised 20,000 British military personnel tasked with assisting with implementing the Government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. These forces were divided into Operation Broadshare, which was directed to defending British interests abroad, and Operation Rescript, which was directed to maintain public order in the event of a breakdown of civil society in response to the coronavirus crisis in the UK. On 2 April, a further 3,000 reservists joined the COVID Support Force.
These precautions indicate how unsure the Government was about the public’s reaction to the lockdown of the UK it would announce within a few days, and its anticipation of widespread civil disobedience. In the event, it needn’t have worried. The UK is almost unique in offering no opposition to, and no protest against, the removal of the rights and liberties of its people, the depression of its economy, the arbitrary policing of its public and private spaces. On the contrary, it has eagerly collaborated in implementing all the above, leaving the COVID Support Force free to build unused hospitals and transport equipment for private companies.
5. The Lockdown of the UK
- On 23 March, in an address to the nation broadcast on the BBC, the Prime Minister announced the ‘lockdown’ of the UK. This restricted movement to 1) shopping for basic necessities, 2) one form of exercise per day, 3) receiving or delivering medical needs for yourself or a vulnerable person, and 4) travel to essential work when it is not possible to work from home. ‘If you don’t follow the rules,’ the Prime Minister declared, ‘the police will have power to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.’ To ensure compliance with the Government’s instructions, all shops selling non-essential goods were immediately closed, as were libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship; gatherings of more than two people in public were prohibited, as were all social events excluding funerals.
- On 24 March, the National Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, John Apter, who does not occupy an elected office and has no authority over the creation or passing of UK legislation, warned the general public that: ‘If you don’t heed this Government’s advice, then it is likely further steps may need to be taken; further laws and emergency legislation could be introduced to clamp down harder.’
6. The Coronavirus Act 2020
- On 25 March, the Coronavirus Act 2020 was made law. Presented without debate or an impact assessment on 19 March, between the 2nd and 3rd reading and debate in the House of Commons and the 1st and only sitting of the scrutiny committee, both on 23 March, the 1st and 2nd reading in the House of Lords on 24 March, to the 1st and only sitting of the scrutiny committee, 3rd reading in the House of Lords and Royal Assent, all on 25 March, the 348 pages, 102 Provisions and 29 Schedules of the Coronavirus Bill had just 1 week of reading and 3 days of debate by Parliament before becoming law. Among this raft of legislation were the following numbered Provisions:
- Modifies mental health and mental capacity legislation to allow the requirements for the detention and treatment of patients to be satisfied by the opinion of a single doctor. Extends the time for which a patient can be detained from 72 hours to 120 hours prior to sectioning. And reduces to 1 the number of doctors’ opinions required to detain and move a person between court, prison and hospital. The Act claims that, by reducing the number of doctors required to enact these powers, ‘undesireable delay’ in sectioning those with coronavirus will be avoided.
- Empowers a doctor who has not seen the deceased to certify the cause of death without the death being referred to the coroner before cremation of the deceased. Allows a person to register the death without attending the register office, and extends the list of people who can give the relevant information to the registrar to funeral directors, who require no medical training. The Act claims that, by allowing cremations to take place without a confirmatory medical certificate of death, it will free healthcare professionals to support the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Empowers the Secretary of State to increase the number of Judicial Commissioners, and to vary the appointment process at the request of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. This allows the Commissioner to directly appoint temporary Judicial Commissioners for a term of up to 6 months, renewable to a maximum period of 12 months. The Act claims this provision is to over for a shortage of Judicial Commissioners as a result of the effects of COVID-19.
- Empowers the Secretary of State by statutory instrument to modify the time limits relevant to the issue, approval, duration, renewal and modification of warrants under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. At the request of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, the lifespan of a warrant can be extended from 5 days to up to 12 working days. The Act claims this is in order to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, by protecting national security and prevent serious crime during ‘a period of potential widespread upheaval.’
- Empower the Secretary of State by regulations to extend the time limit for the statutory retention of biometric material such as fingerprints and DNA. The Act claims this is in anticipation of the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of Chief Officers to assess whether such material should be retained for the purposes of national security.
- Since, under a statutory instrument made on 5 March, COVID-19 has been added to the list of notifiable diseases, according to which any inquest into a death for which the coroner suspects the cause was a notifiable disease must take place with a jury, this provision modifies the existing legislation to make COVID-19 not a notifiable disease. The Act claims this is to lessen coroner workload due to COVID-19 deaths. In other words, COVID-19 is considered sufficiently dangerous for the doctor to be obliged to notify its presence as the underlying cause of death on the death certificate if the doctors even suspects it as a possible or contributing cause or the deceased tested positive for SARs-CoV-2 at the time of death, but not dangerous enough for a jury to establish whether it is the actual cause of death.
- Empowers the State to require or direct temporary closure of educational institutions and registered childcare premises; to specify directions in connection with their running; and to remove or vary existing requirements contained in education and childcare legislation.
- Fills any gaps in existing powers to ensure the detention, screening and isolation of people who may be infected or contaminated with SARs-CoV-2. Schedule 21 clarifies that a person is ‘potentially infectious’ if, at any time, they are, or may be, infected or contaminated with coronavirus, and there is a risk that they might infect or contaminate others with coronavirus, or the person has been in an infected area within the 14 days preceding that time. ‘Infected area’ means any country, territory or other area outside the UK where there is known, or thought to be, sustained human-to-human transmission of coronavirus, or from which there is a high risk that coronavirus will be transmitted to the United Kingdom.
- Empowers the Secretary of State to prohibit attendance at or impose restrictions on events and gatherings, prohibit or restrict entry into premises, to close premises, and to prohibit departure from premises, if he deems it necessary for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, delaying or otherwise controlling the incidence or transmission of coronavirus. Schedule 22 clarifies that ‘premises’ means any place, including any vehicle, train, vessel, aircraft, tent or moveable structure; but does not define an ‘event or gathering’. Any person so designated by the Secretary of State may take such action as is necessary to enforce compliance with any prohibition, direction or restriction in this provision, and any person who fails to comply with a prohibition, requirement or restriction imposed on the person commits an offence liable on summary conviction to a fine.
- 60. 61. Empowers the Secretary of State, by regulations made by statutory instrument, to postpone elections and referendums due to be held in England in the period after 15 March; to postpone elections scheduled for 7th May; to postpone other elections and referendums (such as by-elections and local referendums) until 6 May 2021; with the Minister of the Cabinet Office, to postpone a recall petition under the Recall of MPs Act 2015 until 21 April 2021; and to make supplementary provision to these regulations.
- Empowers local authorities to relax requirements to hold local authority, committee or joint committee meeting, to change the times or places or frequency with which such meetings are held, the manner in which persons may attend, speak at, vote in or otherwise participate in them, the extent of public admission and access to them, and the places and manner in which documents relating to meetings are to be open to inspection or otherwise available to the public. The Act claims this is to lessen the anticipated increase in workload for local authorities as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
- Issued notice that the Act expires at the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which it is passed, so on 25 March 2022. However, a Minister of the Crown may by regulations make transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the expiry of any provision of this Act.
- Empowers a relevant national authority by regulations to alter the expiry date of any provision of this Act.
- Requires a 6-month parliamentary review of the motion ‘that the temporary provision of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire’. Such a review must be held within a period 7 sitting days after 6 months from the day on which the Act is passed, and each subsequent period of 6 months. However, MPs will only be able to vote on the continuation of the powers conferred by the Act if Parliament is sitting. If they are not able to vote, the powers will remain in force.
The explanatory notes explain that the Coronavirus Act is ‘to enable the Government to respond to an emergency situation and manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’; that these powers are ‘extraordinary measures’ that do not apply in normal circumstances; and that they are therefore time-limited to two years. The lifetime of the Act can be ended early, if the ‘best scientific evidence’ supports a policy decision that these powers are no longer needed. However, with evidence supporting the opposite decision, the lifetime of the Act can also be extended ‘for a further temporary period’. According to a convention agreed to by the parliamentary opposition, the Coronavirus Act 2020 was ‘nodded through’ by MPs, rather than approved by democratic vote.
- That same day, 25 March, the House of Commons and the House of Lords rose early for the Easter recess, with the agreement that they would return on 21 April, 15 days longer than the previous year.
7. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020
- On 26 March, the day after Parliament recessed, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, again exercising powers conferred by the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, employed a statutory instrument that made the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (the Regulations). Like their predecessors, these too were made without a draft having been laid before or approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament, and without an impact assessment having been made. These Regulations:
- Replaced the Health Protection (Coronavirus) regulations 2020, which continue in force, nonetheless, in relation to any offence committed under the first Regulations before these Regulations came into force.
- Initiated an ‘emergency period’ that will only end at a time specified by the Secretary of State, and will be reviewed every 21 days.
- Empowers the State to close premises and businesses in which food or drink are sold for consumption on the premises during the emergency period.
- Empowers the State to close premises offering goods for sale or hire, library services, holiday accommodation, a place of worship, community centre or burial ground.
- Empowers the State to restrict movement ‘without reasonable excuse’ during the emergency period.
- Empowers the State to prohibit public gatherings of more than two people not from the same household except where ‘reasonably necessary’ during the emergency period.
- Empowers a police constable, police community support officer or any person designated by a local authority or the Secretary of State to take such action as is necessary, and using ‘reasonable force’, to enforce a closure or restriction imposed by these regulations; to direct a prohibited gathering to disperse; to direct or remove persons so gathering to the place they live; to take other such actions as is necessary to enforce the prohibitions; to direct or remove any person outside of the place where they live without a reasonable excuse to the place where they live.
- Empowers the State to charge any person who fails to comply with or contravenes these Regulations with committing an offence punishable by a fine.
- Empowers a police constable, community support office, or person designated by a local authority or the Secretary of State to impose by summary conviction a fixed-penalty notice of £60, doubling at each repeated offence up to £960 on any person who fails to comply with or contravenes these Regulations.
- Empowers the State to bring proceedings by the Crown Prosecution Service against anyone who fails to comply with or contravenes these Regulations.
- Issued notice that these Regulations will expire 6 months from the day on which they came into force, which regulation does not affect the validity of ‘anything’ done in accordance with these Regulations before they expire.
These Regulations made it clear that, without it being formally declared by the UK Government, the UK was now in a de facto State of Emergency, and its citizens under emergency powers. In this the UK mirrors similar informally imposed powers in Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Kosovo, Malta, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden. In addition, either under Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights or in accordance with their country’s constitutional provisions, a formal State of Emergency has been declared by the European governments of Albania, Belgium, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine. Not even the Third Reich, at the height of its dominance, held such dictatorial control over so many of the people of Europe.
Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:
‘In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation, any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under [the] Convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.’
Since the UK has been waging a ‘War on Terror’ for 20 years now, it may be some time before the Government identifies the exact location and bearer of this metonymic ‘life of the nation’ that is supposedly threatened by the coronavirus. But it is precisely this life, which is both individual and collective, that is the subject-object of biopolitics in which, as Giorgio Agamben has argued, the distinction between politics and policing, the care of health and the fight against the (invisible) enemy, disappears, as it has today in the UK. However, having not evoked Article 15, and having withdrawn from the European Union on 31 January, the UK Government is not accountable to the ‘other obligations under international law’ that successive UK Governments have ignored for some time now, most notably in their treatment of Julian Assange, whose extra-legal imprisonment and torture has foreshadowed the use of these emergency powers. Instead, these have been made by the present Government under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the amendments made in the Health and Social Care Act 2008, and potentially will be, in the future, under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.
8. The Police State
- On 30 March, in an interview on Radio 4, former Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption, QC, said:
‘The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform. They are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command. Yet in some parts of the country, the police have been trying to stop people from doing things which are not contrary to the regulations, simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to. The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences, but only legal regulations, which don’t go anything like as far as the Government’s Guidance. This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the Government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.’
On 30 March, the Cabinet Office announced measures to crackdown on the ‘spread of false coronavirus information online’. To this end, the Government’s Rapid Response Unit is now working with social media companies to remove ‘false and misleading narratives’ that contradict their own. To help the public identify whether it should share or even read an article online, the Government has published a five-step Share Checklist. Conflating such articles with the threat from the virus itself, the Government said this checklist will ensure the public has ‘the right information to protect themselves and save lives’. By the same reasoning, anyone who contradicts the Government online can potentially be accused of endangering lives.
On 31 March, the National Police Chiefs’ Council published COVID-19 — Policing brief in response to Coronavirus Government Legislation. Together with the briefing from the College of Policing published five days earlier, this laid out the four-step escalation principles: 1) ‘Engage: we police by consent. Officers will initially encourage voluntary compliance; 2) Explain: officers will stress the risks to public health and to the NHS, and educate people about the risks and the wider social factors; 3) Encourage: officers will encourage compliance and emphasise the benefits to the NHS by staying at home, how this can save lives and reduce risk for more vulnerable people in society and 4) Enforce: if faced with non-compliance, officers will, if necessary and proportionate: a) direct those without a reasonable excuse to go home, using reasonable force if needed; b) issue a penalty notice for disorder (PND) of £60, to discourage further non-compliance; c) use prohibition notices to stop public gatherings; and d) use existing licensing powers where businesses and organisations fail to comply.’
Despite these guidelines, police officers are patrolling armed with assault rifles, hand guns, taser guns and CS-gas sprays, and have been reported and recorded forcing entry into people’s homes, using drones to order people to stop walking alone on hills, banning people from entering parks, chasing people off beaches, threatening people with pepper spray, assaulting people for non-compliance with directions, arresting people for refusing to give them their personal details, arresting people under the wrong powers, charging them with the wrong offences, prosecuting them for offences that don’t exist, unlawfully issuing them with Fixed Penalty Notices, and numerous other abuses of their new powers.
- On 1 April, Devon and Cornwall Police released a statement saying that, regardless of the guidance from both the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing, it would not be changing its position on people travelling by car to a place for exercise. ‘Our interpretation is that it is not reasonable, for the majority, to drive miles to a specific place such as a beauty spot. It is also not within the spirit of what we are trying to achieve if you drive from Devon to the coast of Cornwall for surfing, regardless of whether that is “lawful” or not.’ This last phrase was later removed from its website, but the Devon and Cornwall Police continue to enforce their own interpretation of the law.
The Metropolitan Police, the Thames Valley Police, the Greater Manchester Police, the West Yorkshire Police, the Lancashire Constabulary, the Avon and Somerset Police, the Staffordshire Police, the Kent Police, the Dyfed-Powys Police, the North Wales Police, have all set up websites inviting members of the public to ‘Tell us about a possible breach of coronavirus (COVID-19) measures’. In response, by 30 April the National Police Chiefs’ Council announced it had received reports from public informants of more than 194,300 coronavirus-related incidents in England and Wales (over 5,700 reports per day), and issued 9,176 fixed-penalty notices, in the little more than a month since the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations had come into force on 26 March.
9. The 5-Pillar Testing Strategy
- On 2 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced his 5-Pillar Testing Strategy: 1) Tests for SARs-CoV-2 in Public Health England laboratories and NHS hospitals; 2) Creation of ‘brand new’ testing capacity delivered by ‘commercial partners’ such as Amazon and Boots; 3) Antibody blood tests to establish immunity, to develop which the Government is working with 9 private companies; 4) Population surveillance programmes; and 5) Building a British diagnostics industry in collaboration with ‘pharmaceutical giants’ such as AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company that in 2010 agreed to pay £505 million to settle a UK tax dispute related to transfer mispricing, and GlaxoSmithKline, one of the largest, most predatory, most prosecuted and most fined of the so-called ‘Big-Pharma’ corporations, which specialises in respiratory products and vaccines, and is the company at which Sir Patrick Vallance was President of Research and Development for 6 years until, in March 2018, he was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government.
- On 3 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care clarified of the social distancing prohibitions: ‘This advice is not a request. It is an instruction. Stay at home.’
- On 5 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care warned: ‘I say this to the small minority of people who are breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries. You are risking your own life, and the lives of others.’ He went on to announce the latest technology, a coronavirus status checker, saying that ‘the smart use of data like this and digital technologies is one the strongest bulwarks we have against coronavirus’.
- On 10 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, ‘two of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world’, had opened a ‘mega-lab’ in Cambridge. He thanked Burberry, Rolls-Royce, Mclaren, Ineos and Diageo for their production of personal protective equipment, and invited other companies to help meet the department’s PPE plan.
- On 12 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced a new NHS ‘app’ for contact tracing that, in the event of the users showing ‘the symptoms of coronavirus’, will send an alert to other app users with whom the user has been in contact. He assured us that ‘All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and research and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed.’ Without identifying who they are, the Secretary further assured us that: ‘We’re working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in clinical safety and digital ethics so that we can get this right.’
10. The Five Conditions for Lifting the Lockdown of the UK
- On 16 April, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs announced that the Government-imposed lockdown of the UK would only be lifted when five conditions are met. 1) The NHS is able to provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment; 2) There is a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rates from coronavirus; 3) The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) shows that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board; 4) The supply of testing capacity and personal protection equipment is able to meet future demand; and 5) Removing the lockdown does not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS.
These conditions for lifting the lockdown of the UK have been imposed despite the fact that:
- Far from being overwhelmed, only 41 per cent of NHS acute care beds were in use as of the weekend before the First Secretary made this statement, nearly four times the normal amount of free acute beds at this time of year; and of the 4,000 beds in the Nightingale hospital built in 9 days in East London, only 60 were in use by 29 April, while the Nightingale hospital in the East Midlands had yet to admit any patients. Of the 7 Nightingale hospitals that will provide over 12,000 beds, 6 have so far opened.
- There are no records of how many people have died as a result of coronavirus in the UK, only of how many have had COVID-19 attributed to their deaths as a suspected, possible, contributing, or underlying cause, with or without a positive test for SARs-CoV-2 or COVID-19 being mentioned on the death certificate. And the First Secretary didn’t clarify what fall in the number of deaths he considered to be ‘consistent and sustained’.
- The rate of infection (R0), which estimates the average number of people who will contract a disease from one person with that disease, is highly speculative and currently determined by the level of testing, which to date is 1 in 46 of the UK population. And once again, the First Secretary did not specify what rate of infection is ‘manageable’.
- Future demands on testing capacity and PPE are also unknown, and just as the former capacity has no bearing on the safety of the population from COVID-19, so demands on the latter provide no justification for the lockdown of the roughly 80 per cent of the population for which the coronavirus virus presents little or no threat. The NHS has reported that, as of 5 May, only 238 people in England under the age of 60 and without pre-existing medical conditions have died even testing positive for SARs-CoV-2, let alone dying as a result of COVID-19.
- There is no evidence that the lockdown has done anything to lessen the rate of infection with SARs-CoV-2, particularly when countries that have not imposed lockdowns, such as Iceland (1,800 cases), Sweden (27,200), South Korea (10,900) and Japan (15,850), have a far lower number of cases of infection than the UK (226,500); while there is, to the contrary, considerable evidence to show the lockdown has increased the rate of excess deaths not attributed to COVID-19, with 13,237 recorded in England and Wales between 20 March, when deaths first began to exceed the average over the last five years, and 1 March, the most recent date for which we have figures from the Office for National Statistics. These unexplained deaths comprise 28 per cent of all excess deaths since the lockdown.
Despite these serious flaws in their criteria, these five conditions have been repeated since by every Government Minister in their press briefings, including by the Business Secretary, the Education Secretary, the Transport Secretary, the Environment Secretary, the Health and Social Care Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister.
- On 19 April, in an interview with CNN, the CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, announced that, following new policy changes, any video that ‘goes against’ the World Health Organisation recommendations on the COVID-19 crisis will be deleted, so that users get ‘the right information’.
Following these policy changes, a video interview with Professor Knut Wittkowski, an internationally renowned epidemiologist who for 20 years was head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design at the Rockefeller University in New York City, and who has been modelling epidemics for 35 years, was removed ‘for violating YouTube’s terms and conditions’. This is just one example of many of the censorship of critical or dissenting voices.
11. The Virtual Parliament
- On 21 April, the returned House of Commons, without a vote being held, approved a motion facilitating ‘hybrid proceedings’ that, under the ‘social distancing’ prohibitions imposed by the Prime Minister, allow a maximum of 50 MPs to be present in the Chamber at any one time, with 120 MPs able to participate remotely online. MPs wishing to participate in the hybrid proceedings, which have been reduced from 8 hours to approximately 2 hours, must notify the House Service in advance, and all questions are published in advance. There are 650 seats in the House of Commons with 639 votes.
These arrangements have been dubbed the ‘virtual Parliament’, and mean that, although the Government can be asked a limited number of questions about its actions by the parliamentary opposition, no vote can be held on any legislation it makes, effectively handing the legislative functions of Parliament to the executive, and with it the conditions for a parliamentary democracy. But in fact, the existing legislation required to implement and maintain the lockdown of the UK, including a virtual Parliament, was made law on the 25 and 26 of March.
12. The Track and Trace Mission
- On the same day, 21 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care made an Amendment to the Health protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) regulations 2020, without a draft having been laid before, or a resolution approved, by Parliament, extended the lockdown prohibitions to leaving or staying outside a place where a person is living ‘without reasonable excuse’.
- On the same day, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that ‘In the long run, the best way to defeat coronavirus is through a vaccine.’
- On the same day, the Investigatory Powers (Communications Data) (Relevant Public Authorities and Designated Senior Officers) Regulations 2020, without an impact assessment having been made, extended the power to obtain communications data under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, or so-called ‘snooper’s charter’, to five additional public bodies.
- On 23 April, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care took the opportunity to ‘applaud’ the private companies involved in producing testing for SARs-CoV-2. These include Amazon, the US multinational conglomerate technology company that in July 2019 was awarded a contract by the UK Government that gives it free access to information about healthcare published by the NHS; Boots, the UK pharmacy retailer that in February 2018 was criticised for charging excessive prices for low-value products supplied to the NHS; ThermoFisher, the US provisioner of scientific instrumentation, reagents, consumables, software and services to healthcare, life science, and other laboratories that supplied DNA sequencing equipment to police in China’s Xinjiang region in support of a mandatory biometric collection and surveillance program; Randox, a UK company in the in vitro diagnostics industry that in February 2017 faced charges against two employees arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice amid allegations of data tampering within its testing services used by police in England and Wales; Roche, the Swiss multinational healthcare company that in 1999 pleaded guilty to participating with its competitors to raise and fix prices for vitamins sold globally; Oxford Nanopore, the UK company developing and selling nanopore sequencing products (including the portable DNA sequencer, MinION); and, once again, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline. He then appealed for people to ‘take part’ in virus infection and antibody trials, and announced that the government is putting in place the infrastructure necessary to ‘roll out contact tracing on a large scale’. Restating the necessity of our obedience to the Health Protection Regulations, he ended by saying: ‘We have travelled together too far to go backwards now.’
- On 28 April, Matthew Gould, the Chief Executive of NHSX, the unit that sets national policy and best practice for the NHS on digital technology, including data sharing and transparency, told the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee that the NHSX is exploring the creation of Immunity Passports as part of the UK’s exit strategy from the lockdown. These will signal whether a person has immunity to SARs-CoV-2, and will require an artificial intelligence facial recognition check that matches a Government-approved ID to confirm a person’s health status via a Quick Response (QR) code when entering any public space using the bio-security system. The CEO told the Committee that he had been approached by any number of private companies to provide the technology, including from biometric and digital identification company Onfido. In its proposal to NHSX Onfido wrote: ‘Our aim is to collaboratively build a solution that helps establish a “new normal” in which individuals can start to move more freely and safely.’ In its final considerations on whether the programme should be voluntary or mandatory, Onfido concluded: ‘If a programme is mandatory, privacy by design and default becomes ever more critical as participation should be possible without further intrusion on a person’s civil liberties and freedoms’.
- On 29 April a letter addressed to the Government and signed by 170 UK researchers and scientists working in information security and privacy voiced their concerns that the NHS app does not become ‘a tool that enables data collection on the population, or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance.’
- On 1 May, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that by mid-May the Government will have 18,000 contact tracers in place. ‘The combination of contact tracers and new technology, through our new COVID-19 NHS app, will help tell us where the virus is spreading and help everyone to control new infections’. A member of the public that has diagnosed themselves as having the symptoms of coronavirus will declare their status in the app on their smartphone. The software will then send a yellow alert, supposedly anonymously, to other users of the app that have been in contact with them. This will be established through GPS location data and Bluetooth signals in their smartphones — the latter of which can pass through walls and therefore doesn’t establish possibility of infection or contagion — supplemented by QR codes posted to public amenities. The person will be sent a home test, and if the result confirms their infection with SARs-CoV-2 a red alert will be sent, informing the other users to go into quarantine. The Secretary of State added: ‘Tracking and tracing will allow us . . . to lift lockdown measures.’ This occasioned a brief meditation on how the Government’s new mission to ‘track and trace’ will impose a new relation between freedom and safety:
‘In recent weeks, we have had to impinge on historic liberties to protect our NHS and our loved ones, and yet our goal must be freedom. Freedom from the virus, yes — and we will not lift measures until it is safe to do so. But also we care about the restoration of social freedom and economic freedom too. Each citizen’s right to do as they please. For now, we are working together to stay home. We are impinging on the freedom of all, for the safety of all. With this next mission, of track and trace, I am seeking a solution that allows us — by each of us participating — to target the measures that are needed with much more precision, and so to reassert as much as is safely possible the liberty of us all. That is our next mission.’
- On the same day, 1 May, the Cabinet Office issued guidance on ‘Staying at home and away from others (social distancing)’. Superseding that issued on 16 March, this summarised some of the effects of the legislation made over the intervening 6 weeks, and was divided into 1) Staying at home, 2) Closing certain businesses and venues, 3) Stopping public gatherings, 4) Going to work, 5) Enforcing the law, and 6) Clinically vulnerable people.
13. The Exploitation of the Coronavirus Crisis
- On 5 May, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs brought our attention to the news that ‘there will always be some who seek to exploit a crisis for their own criminal and hostile ends’. This apparently takes the form of ‘cyber-attacks’ from criminal gangs, hackers, hostile states, and what in the cyber security world are known as ‘advanced persistent attack groups’ targeting national and international organisations responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘There are various objectives and motivations that lie behind these attacks’, the First Secretary explained, ‘from fraud on the one hand to espionage. But they tend to be designed to steal bulk personal data, intellectual property and wider information that supports those aims.’
- That same day, the Guardian newspaper reported that the Government is using the coronavirus pandemic to accelerate the transfer of key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies into the private sector. Ministers have used special powers to bypass normal tendering processes and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants. Amazon; Archus, an advisory, investment and development partner with a focus on health and social care infrastructure; AstraZeneca; Boots; Clipper Logistics; Deloitte, the largest professional services network in the world that in 2016 failed to protect itself against a cyberattack that breached the confidentiality of its clients and 244,000 staff, allowing the attackers to access usernames, passwords, IP addresses and health information; G4S, the UK’s largest security services company that has been accused of using immigrant-detainee labour in prisons, extreme misconduct in child custodial institutions in the UK and the US, and of collaborating in police telephone data manipulation; GlaxoSmithKline, which in 2012 was fined $3 billion after admitting bribing US doctors and encouraging the prescription of unsuitable anti-depressants to children; Interserve, the multinational group of support services and construction companies that last year went into administration; KPMG, the multinational professions service network that in 2004 admitted criminal wrongdoing in creating fraudulent tax shelters to help wealthy clients avoid $2.5 billion in taxes between 1996 and 2002, and subsequently agreed to pay $456 million in penalties to avoid indictment; Mitie, the UK strategic outsourcing company with businesses in everything from property management and cleaning to home care, immigration detention and deportation, prisons and custodial health services; Mott MacDonald, the UK multidisciplinary consultancy that in 2017 was suspended from bidding for Government contracts in Hong Kong when it was found to have disclosed confidential population and employment data to outsiders; Palantir, the US software company that provides tracking and surveillance infrastructure to the US military, Immigration Customs and Enforcement and local police departments; Serco, the UK provider of public services in health, education, housing, transport, prisons, border security, military defence and information technology that last year was fined £19.2m by the Serious Fraud Office; and Sodexo, the French food services and facilities management company and one of the world’s largest multinational corporations, whose subsidiary, Sodexo Justice Services, was criticised by the UK Ministry of Justice in February 2019 for failing to prevent repeated and systemic breaches of the human rights of inmates at HMP Peterborough — all these companies of questionable probity and competence have been awarded taxpayer-funded commissions to manage COVID-19 test centres, run test laboratories, carry out contact tracing, purchase PPE, recruit hospital staff and build the 7 empty Nightingale hospitals. The NHS has subsequently been told by Ministers that it can only order key equipment through a centralised procurement team.
- Also on the same day, the Guardian reported that over the past 18 months the Government has awarded at least seven contracts worth almost £1 million to Faculty, a start-up employed by Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to the Prime Minister, with the Brexit campaign; that last year was tasked with finding ways to apply artificial intelligence across Government; in which Theodore Agnew, the Cabinet Office Minister in charge of the Office for Artificial Intelligence and Government Digital Service, has £90,000 of shares; and whose CEO, Marc Warner, has attended the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which is chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance, the former President of Research and Development at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the pharmaceutical companies contracted by the Government.
There are various objectives and motivations that lie behind these untendered Government contracts, from the privatisation of public services to the surveillance and control of the UK population through technology utilising artificial intelligence managed by global corporations. But they tend to be designed to steal the biometric data, digital records and personal information that supports those aims.
14. The COVID Alert System
- On 10 May, in an address to the nation broadcast on the BBC, the Prime Minister announced what he called the ‘sketch of a roadmap for reopening society’. Beginning with the assertion that the efficacy of the lockdown was a ‘fact’, when in fact there is no evidence for that and plenty to the contrary, he went on to claim that without the lockdown half a million people in the UK would have died of COVID-19
This figure is based on the by now famous report published on 16 March by Imperial College London that had been commissioned by the Government, that wasn’t peer reviewed before publication, whose estimates of case fatality rate were far higher than those in a report published by the same team only a week earlier, that has been challenged by other virus modellers, and whose numbers were retracted nine days later by the head of the team that modelled them, Professor Niall Ferguson, who has a record of extravagant claims that have subsequently and repeatedly been proven untrue by many orders of magnitude. In 2001, as a result of Professor Ferguson’s modelling of the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease, 12 million farm animals were slaughtered in the UK, with a cost to the UK economy estimated at £10 billion. In 2002, he predicted that up to 50,000 people would die from BSE (Mad Cow Disease), increasing to 150,000 if the epidemic expanded to include sheep. Since 1990 a total of 178 people in the UK have died from the disease. In 2005 he claimed that up to 200 million people worldwide would be killed by bird-flu. Between 2003 and 2009 only 282 people died from the disease. And in 2009 Professor Ferguson and his team at Imperial College advised the Government that swine flu would probably kill 65,000 people in the UK. Swine flu eventually killed just 457 people. On 5 May, five days before the Prime Minister’s address, Professor Ferguson had resigned from his position on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
The Prime Minister reiterated that this was a conditional plan, that has to meet the five conditions for lifting the lockdown of the UK already introduced by the First Secretary on 16 April, all of which, as we have seen, are based on inaccurate assessments of the present, meaningless criteria, impossible to make assessments, factors irrelevant to the decision, or some combination of them all.
The Prime Minister then introduced the new COVID Alert System, whose 5 levels run from 5) the overwhelming of the NHS; 4) the situation in which we have supposedly been during the lockdown; 3) where we’re supposed to be going next; 2) didn’t get a mention; and 1) when the coronavirus is no longer present in the UK. These alert levels will be determined by the rate of infection (R0) of SARs-CoV-2, which he claimed is currently between 0.5 and 0.9.
In fact, until the entire population of the UK has been tested (and at the time of writing only 1,460,517 people had been tested out of a population of 67,886,000), this is speculation, and will remain so until the other 66,425,000 people are tested. Even at the target rate of 100,000 tests per day the Government has consistently failed to meet, this would take a further 664 days, or around the time it will take to develop a vaccine. As a criterion for setting an alert level or as a condition of lifting the lockdown of the UK, this too is meaningless.
To keep this purely speculative rate of infection down, the Prime Minister said we would need to 1) reverse the epidemic in care homes and the NHS; and 2) ‘control the virus’ by a system of testing possible victims and tracing their contacts.
He said no more about the tracking and tracing system the NHSX has been developing with Onfido and other tech companies; but the measures to implement this were filled out in more detail in the 50-page document that was presented to the virtual Parliament the next day. As for the idea of ‘controlling’ a virus, that is more meaningless bravado presumably to justify eventually making the uploading of the Track and Trace app and other surveillance technology such as the Immunity Passport mandatory.
The Prime Minister then laid out three steps in his roadmap:
- Those who can’t work from home should be actively encouraged to return to work, but social distancing both on public transport and at work ‘must and will be maintained’. In addition, people are now allowed unlimited exercise; but those who disobey the prohibitions on social distancing will now be issued with increased fines, with fixed notice penalties of £100 rising to a maximum of £3,200.
- By 1 June at the earliest, there will be the phased opening of schools, with primary schools first; and the opening of some shops.
- By 4 July at the earliest, some businesses in the hospitality industry will be allowed to open, together with other public places. However, social distancing will still be imposed.
Finally, without saying when it would come into effect, the Prime Minister added that people arriving in the UK by plane would now be quarantined. It later emerged that this wouldn’t include people coming from France, according to a reciprocal agreement between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Emmanuel Macron. Since Britain and France have, respectively, the first and third highest number of deaths in Europe officially attributed to COVID-19, one can only presume that a large number of Government officials and their corporate backers have their weekend homes in the South of France. It also emerged that social distancing wouldn’t apply to cleaners and nannies, which MPs presumably consider essential to keeping their London, constituency and second homes tidy, and looking after their kids for them while they’re busy not attending Parliament. Whatever the case, these exceptions to the rules blatantly biased towards the needs of the middle classes revealed the contingency of measures supposedly based on the ‘best scientific evidence’.
What this roadmap didn’t contain is any indication of when social distancing prohibitions will be lifted, except by the meaningless criterion of reaching level 1 on the New COVID Alert System. This most obviously parallels the five levels in the UK Terror Threat Levels that were introduced by the Government in 2006 for much the same purpose, and on which we have never dropped below Level 3: Substantial, indicating that ‘an attack is a strong possibility’. On this possibility, the Government imposition of social distancing looks to be the ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future.
15. The State of Emergency as a Paradigm of Government
So many new regulations and laws have been made, so many civil liberties and human rights contravened, and so many public services privatised and outsourced to corporate clients during this Government-imposed State of Emergency that there is a point at which any commentary on everything done under the aegis of the coronavirus crisis has to choose what to report. But let’s stop here and look at what can be done, and what is likely to be done, under the current legislation. Specifically, I want to look at the Government’s ‘Track and Trace’ mission, and how it is likely to be used and extended in the future by amendments to legislation justified by the apparent necessity of preventing infection and contamination with SARs-CoV-2.
At present, both the Chief Executive of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care have avoided answering the question of whether use of biometric technology like the Track and Trace programme and the Immunity Passport will be voluntary or mandatory. However, it has been suggested that unless a significant proportion of the population downloads the app containing this technology — with the figure of 60 per cent being advanced — it won’t fulfil its function. After a voluntary stage, therefore, in which the relevant app is uploaded by tech consumers and those terrified by the media, we can anticipate its employment being a condition of entering public places for which there are or can be security guards, such as a supermarket, park, gym, library, cinema, pub, restaurant, hotel, gallery, museum, concert hall, football ground or place of worship; or of using public services, such as buses, trains, planes, post offices, clinics, hospitals, housing offices, homeless hostels, jobcentres, benefit-claimant or immigration offices; and above all as a condition of entering a place of work or study, whether factory, warehouse, work site, call centre, office, lecture hall or classroom. Doing so will require proof of immunity to the coronavirus. Finally, when its use has become the ‘new normal’, the uploading of the app, the submission of the biometric data and the creation of the digital identity it requires will be made mandatory on the basis that the number of people using the app is insufficient to safeguard the public against infection. This will then be rolled out with yet more regulations or amendments to legislation imposing increased fines and further prosecution for any person failing to comply, along with the police powers necessary to enforce compliance.
Not only will a person’s access to work, to entertainment, to public life, to other people, their freedoms of movement, assembly and association, be determined and controlled by their ongoing submission of their biological data to a testing and tracking device that monitors their every move and interaction through every moment of their lives, but any deviation from the instructions they receive from the monitors of these devices, any failure to update further technology or upload additional data — or any other deviation from Government directives, including political protest, dissenting speech or refusal to obey or implement any bio-security or anti-terrorist measures — can be punished by the simple recourse of removing their access to all public places and services, their place of employment, even their place of accommodation. US property technology companies are already using the supposed threat of COVID-19 to implement biometric access controls and facial recognition entry systems to screen tenants in restricted access buildings, the surveillance of gated communities, and to compile and extend data bases on the population. With very little change to existing technology and legislation in the UK, any dissenting person could effectively be made an ‘unperson’, to use George Orwell’s prophetic term, as well as potentially charged with, for example, ‘endangering the lives of others’. We shouldn’t forget that coughing at key workers or members of the public by someone claiming to have coronavirus is now categorised by the Crown Prosecution Service as assault punishable by up to 12 months in prison. It’s a small step from there to prosecuting someone for refusing to confirm whether they have coronavirus. Indeed, under existing powers, a police constable, community support officer, or anyone designated by a local authority or the Secretary of State, can compel a person they suspect ‘has, or may have’ coronavirus to be tested, so the legislation to make the use of this app mandatory is already in place.
The commonly heard response from liberals concerned at the raft of legislation and regulations made by the Government under the lockdown of the UK is that it ‘sets a disturbing precedent for the future’. It doesn’t. As should be clear to anyone reading this article and the legislation it summarises, that future is now. This is already happening — has happened, the consequences of which are unfolding before us every day. When I started this article, I intended to end by speculating on how this legislation will be employed in the immediate future, but it’s already too late: that future has overtaken us and is now our present.
Here’s how Onfido described how an Immunity Passport will work when their technology is loaded onto the NHSX track and trace app and a user wants to return to work — a situation in which millions of UK citizens find themselves right now:
‘Alice works for a consultancy firm and has been working from home during the lockdown period. She now wants to go back to work from the office and must prove her immunity from COVID-19 in order to do so:
- She signs up for an immunity test with the NHS. She is asked to register and verify her identity ahead of her appointment. She can do this via her smartphone or computer, using the in-built camera on either device to take a picture of her face and associate it with her registration.
- She goes to an NHS centre to be tested. Her picture is taken via a hands-free camera and is compared to the image of her face taken during registration, to prove that she is the same person who originally signed up for the test. The images match, and the test is administered.
- When complete, the immunity certificate is created and connected to her digital identity.
- She uses this digital identity, now associated with her immunity certificate, as a passport to access her office.’
When considering the possibility of such measures being enacted, we should ask ourselves why, given the legislative ability to do so, the Government wouldn’t do so? What Government in modern British history has ever not enacted to their full extent its powers to monitor and control the population of the UK? In the light of this question, the scenarios I have drawn from the current legislation, let alone that which will be made in the future (and the 10 anti-terrorist Acts passed in the past 20 years is an indicator of what’s in store for us), is not a possibility or even a probability, but a likelihood that we should expect and, if we still have the mind and will to do so, plan to resist. Although there has been some limited concern about this legislation from lawyers, the organisations that might be expected to organise such resistance are too busy collaborating, intentionally or unwittingly, in creating and maintaining the illusion of a threat on which this legislation has been made by Government, nodded through by Parliament and accepted by the population of the UK. It would be inaccurate to call what we are living under fascism, as fascism was a historical moment at a different stage in the development of capitalism; but we are, without a shadow of a doubt, living under — or rather with, in the sense that we are its willing collaborators and implementors — legislation and technologies of surveillance and control about which the totalitarian states of the Twentieth Century could only dream.
It’s a quirk of history that it always appears to happen to somebody else, in some other country, and always in the past. The German citizens photographed sunbathing on Berlin’s most popular beach in the summer of 1933 didn’t realise they had just entered 12 years of totalitarian dictatorship. Yet, just like us, they had obeyed the emergency decree suspending their freedoms and rights on the justification of a fabricated threat to national safety; read the Enabling Act passing legislative power to the government; listened half-believing to their leader describe the threat from an almost invisible enemy; and observed with growing anxiety the actions of their police and paramilitary forces in controlling it. Hitler had to overcome the requirement of forming a majority coalition Government, the parliamentary opposition of the Social Democrats, and the largest and best organised Communist Party in Europe both in and outside the Reichstag. In comparison, the Government of Boris Johnson has a free ride, with the largest parliamentary majority for the Conservative Party in 32 years, the complete collaboration of the parliamentary opposition, and a political left with no representation either in Parliament or on the street competing on social media to see who can demand the sternest response to a non-existent threat.
In his 2003 study of the historical, political and juridical contexts for the State of Exception, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, reminds us that — from its origin in the ‘state of siege’ decreed by the French Constituent Assembly in 1791, its introduction as the conditions under which the French constitution could be suspended in 1799, its enactment in the ‘Decree for the Protection of People and State’ issued by President von Hindenburg in 1933, through to its application to the ‘military order’ issued by President Bush in November 2001 that authorised the indefinite detention of enemy combatants deprived of legal status in Guantanamo Bay prison camp, (and, by extension, the extralegal imprisonment and torture of Julian Assange by successive UK Governments) — it has been within the democratic tradition, and not an absolutist one, that the state of exception has emerged as what he calls ‘the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics’. In a passage quoted by Agamben from Constitutional Government and Democracy (1941), the political theorist Carl J. Friedrich wrote:
‘The quasi-dictatorial provisions of modern constitutional systems, be they martial rule, state of siege, or constitutional emergency powers, fail to conform to any exacting standard of effective limitations upon a temporary concentration of powers. Consequently, all these systems are liable to be transformed into totalitarian schemes if conditions become favourable to it.’
I ask again: under our current conditions, within the new legislative powers, and given the public mood created by the media, why would the UK Government not enact the scenario I have described above? And when it does, what will you do in response? Acquiesce passively, as if nothing had changed except to increase our safety? Collaborate actively and willingly in implementing the ‘new normal’ the Government has prepared for us? Resist, to the extent that is still possible to do so under these conditions of surveillance and control. Or flee the country while you still can? The choices are as stark as they were facing the citizens of Germany 87 years ago. The collective consequences of those individual choices will fall upon us all.
16. The Foreseeable Future
- On 11 May, the day before this article was published, the Prime Minister presented to the virtual Parliament ‘Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy’. This 50-page document would take an article in itself to summarise and critique; but as a coda to this article, excerpted below are some of the key indications of what the Government plans to implement with the consensus it has manufactured in the UK public over the past three months. As always with such documents, the plan is short on details, but it is extraordinarily — almost brazenly — open about the society the Government is preparing for us. And for once, the word that describes this society is accurate, proportional and fully warranted: totalitarian.
‘Foreword. This document sets out a plan to rebuild the UK for a world with COVID-19. It is not a quick return to “normality”. It is clear that the only feasible long-term solution lies with a vaccine or drug-based treatment. A mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away. Indeed, in a worst-case scenario, we may never find a vaccine. So our plan must countenance a situation where we are in this, together, for the long haul. We must acknowledge that life will be different, at least for the foreseeable future. That will require a widespread system of testing, of tracing and monitoring the spread of the disease . . . and of re-designing workplaces and public spaces to make them “COVID-19 Secure”. Then, as vaccines and treatment become available, we will move to another new phase, where we will learn to live with COVID-19 for the longer term without it dominating our lives.’
‘The challenges ahead. 1) This is not a short-term crisis. It is likely that COVID-19 will circulate in the human population long-term, possibly causing periodic epidemics. In the near future, large epidemic waves cannot be excluded without continuing some measures. 2) In the near term, we cannot afford to make drastic changes. 3) There is no easy or quick solution. Only the development of a vaccine or effective drugs can reliably control this epidemic and reduce mortality without some form of social distancing or contact tracing in place. 6) The virus’ spread is difficult to detect. Some people carry the disease asymptomatically, which may mean that they can spread the virus without knowing that they are infectious. Even those who are not at risk of significant harm themselves may pose a real risk of inadvertently infecting others. This is why a significant part of the next phase of the Government’s response will be to improve its monitoring of and response to new infections. 8) The plan depends on continued widespread compliance.’
‘Overarching principles. 1) Informed by the science. 2) Fairness. 3) Proportionality, 4) Privacy. The Government will always seek to protect personal privacy and be transparent with people when enacting measures that, barring this once-in-a-century event, would never normally be considered. 5) Transparency. Balancing the different considerations will involve some difficult choices. For example, the Government will face a choice between the extent and speed of the freedoms enjoyed by some lower-risk people and the risk to others: if all people at lower personal risk were allowed to resume their lives exactly as before the outbreak, this would increase the level of risk to those that are more vulnerable.’
‘Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC). The success of any strategy based on releasing the current social restrictions while maintaining the epidemic at a manageable level will depend on the Government’s ability to monitor the pandemic accurately. To achieve this, the Government is establishing a new biosecurity monitoring system, led by a new Joint Biosecurity Centre now being established. The Government’s new approach to biosecurity will bring together the UK’s world-leading epidemiological expertise and fuse it with the best analytical capability from across Government in an integrated approach. It will work closely with local partners and businesses to collect a wide range of data to build a picture of COVID-19 infection rates across the country — from testing, environmental and workplace data to local infrastructure testing (e.g. swab tests). The Centre will also have a response function that will identify specific actions to address local spikes in infections, in partnership with local agencies — for example, advising Ministers, businesses and local partners to close schools or workplaces. The JBC will be responsible for setting the new COVID-19 Alert level. Over time the Government will consider whether the JBC should form part of an extended infrastructure to address biosecurity threats to the UK, and whether the COVID-19 alert level system should be expanded to other potential infectious diseases.’
‘Testing and tracing. The COVID-19 Test and Trace Taskforce . . . programme will ensure that, when someone develops COVID-19-like symptoms, they can rapidly have a test to find out if they have the virus — and people who they’ve had recent close contact with can be alerted and provided with advice. This will identify who is infected more precisely, to reduce the number of people who are self-isolating with symptoms but who are not actually infected, and to ensure those who are infected continue to take stringent self-isolation measures; and ensure those who have been in recent close contact with an infected person receive rapid advice and, if necessary, self-isolate, quickly breaking the transmission chain. For such a system to work, several systems need to be built and successfully integrated. These include automated, app-based contact-tracing through the new NHS COVID-19 app to (anonymously) alert users when they have been in close contact with someone identified as having been infected. Whilst the measures above will involve an unprecedented degree of data-collection, as many Asian countries implemented after the SARS and MERS outbreaks, the Government will enact robust safety measures. Part of the tracing effort will include a voluntary NHS contact tracing application for smartphones; this will help increase the speed and effectiveness of the tracing effort. Information collected through the Test and Trace programme, together with wider data from sources such as 111 online, will form part of a core national COVID-19 dataset. The creators of a number of independent apps and websites which have already launched to collect similar data have agreed to work openly with the NHS and have aligned their products and data as part of this central, national effort.’
‘Economic and social support to maintain livelihoods and restore the economy. These measures are extraordinarily costly and cannot be sustained for a prolonged period of time. The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that the direct cost to the Government of the response to COVID-19 could rise above £100bn in 2020-21. In addition to this, support of approximately £330bn (equivalent to 15% of GDP) in the form of guarantees and loans has been made available to business. So as the UK adjusts the current restrictions, the Government will also need to wind down the economic support measures while people are eased back to work. The world will not return to “normal” after COVID-19; much of the global economy is likely to change significantly. The UK will need to be agile in adapting to and shaping this new world.’
‘Public communication, understanding and enforcement. As the UK moves into the next phase, where the Government will need to trust people to comply with more subtle social restrictions, the Government will also need to ensure robust enforcement measures to deter and reduce the threat from the small minority who elect not to act responsibly.’
‘Sustainable government structures. COVID-19 has been perhaps the biggest test of governments worldwide since the 1940s. As the Government navigates towards recovery, it must ensure it learns the right lessons from this crisis and acts now to ensure that governmental structures are fit to cope with a future epidemic. This will require a rapid re-engineering of government’s structures and institutions to deal with this historic emergency. COVID-19 will not be the last major disease that endangers us. The Government must prepare and build now for diseases that could threaten us in the future.’
‘How you can help. The UK now needs to prepare for an extended period of living with and managing the threat from the virus; this will continue to require everyone’s support and adherence.’
- On 12 May, the day I publish this article, the Office for National Statistics released its latest statistics for overall deaths this year. This showed that, as of 1 May, the 18th week of 2020, there have been 247,261 deaths in England and Wales. In comparison, in 2018, following the seasonal influenza virus of 2017-18, 219,402 people had died by the end of week 18. That’s 27,859 less than this year, or, over 18 weeks, an additional 1,547 people dying per week. The average number of deaths per week in the first 18 weeks of 2018 was 12,149, or 1,741 per day. In other words, 18 weeks into 2020 we have had the equivalent of an additional 16 days at the average daily death rate over the same period in 2018. This, however, doesn’t take into account the 13,237 excess deaths recorded in England and Wales in the 7 weeks to 24 April that haven’t been attributed to COVID-19. Deduct these excess deaths, which must at least in part be attributable to the lethal effects of the lockdown of the UK, and the increase in overall deaths this year attributed to COVID-19 over overall deaths in 2018 at the same stage is 14,622. Given that 52 per cent of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 in England as of 5 May were of people over 80 years of age, by the end of the year the overall deaths in 2020 could equal or even drop below those in 2018.
But leaving these unexplained deaths aside for the moment — or attributing them to some other deadly disease yet to be discovered by the Joint Biosecurity Centre and monitored by the Test and Trace programme — it’s on the justification of this 12 per cent increase in mortality over a year in which not a single emergency measure was even contemplated by Parliament, that the Government has locked down the country for the past two months, and is planning to subject the 67,886,000 citizens of the UK to a totalitarian programme of surveillance and control for the foreseeable future. And, to answer Žižek’s question, the more the Government appears to be out of control, incompetent, panicking, to be placing the lives of the populace at risk, the more that populace clammers for the extension of the lockdown, for stronger measures, more intrusive solutions, for better protection from the invisible threat. Whether this crisis has been manufactured by the Government and its corporate clients and to what purpose should no longer be questions except for those who refuse to read the data and legislation I have presented and analysed in my last two articles: the question we must answer is how to oppose the totalitarian measures this crisis has ushered in.
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