My Lords, I envy the moral certainty of some of the loudest voices on both sides of this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, just explained, it is bound to be an issue on which there is a range of strong opinions. The only opinion that I really discount is glibness, in particular a facile imputation of base motives to the other side. It is absurd to argue either that the proponents of these measures are engaged in some plot to create an authoritarian panopticon state or that their opponents are all lunatic conspiracy theorists. We are debating the most basic question of politics, going back to Aristotelian theory: how do people live together while preserving the freedom of the individual?
The answer must hinge on whether these measures are proportionate. I say that very seriously. My noble friend the Minister makes a good argument to the effect that these measures were judiciously chosen to disrupt as little as possible, in the face of an identified threat. It would be silly to dismiss the claim that we try to slow things up while increasing the opportunity for people to get a booster jab. But I keep coming back to one question: why would that logic not now apply to every future variant or, indeed, to every disease as yet unencountered by our doctors? Are we in danger of permanently tilting the balance, so that we have pre-emptive stay-at-home orders or other restrictions, on the off-chance, every time there is something that may or may not turn out to be a severe public health risk?
It is here that we have to make our stand. Over the last 18 months, what has most alarmed me is a reversal in the burden of proof. When proposing to take away people’s elemental freedoms, the onus must be on the proponents of change to prove their case. It is not for defenders of the status quo ante, defenders of our traditional freedoms, to show why restrictions are not necessary. I am not sure that has happened in this case. Even if it has, how are we not opening the door to the same reasoning in future, so that we have a see-saw of constant lockdowns or other bans and restrictions, every time something happens, just to be on the safe side? That would be a fundamental alteration in the relationship between state and citizen.
As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, this was largely a Conservative Party debate in the other place. I tuned in and watched it: I saw 17 successive Conservative speakers, and that was not for a want of people from the other side or a bias in the Chair. The debate was largely confined to the government Benches and I do not see that as a bad thing. I am proud to be a member of a party that takes questions of personal freedom seriously. That is why I finish by saying that, on this or other issues, we must not reverse the way in which we normally determine guilt or innocence. We usually have a very high burden of proof before we confine people to house arrest and we should not lower that, either in this or in more general cases. Freedom should always be our default.