Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 6) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:15 pm on 15th December 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 12:15 pm, 15th December 2021

My Lords, I commend the 126 MPs in the other place who voted on their principles and conscience, despite heavy whipping, in yesterday’s rebellion. They formed an ad hoc Official Opposition while the formal Official Opposition did their—what did Keir Starmer call it?—“patriotic duty” in not opposing but endorsing every single one of the Government’s proposals.

Despite having previously opposed vaccine passports, now renamed by Ministers—as though that were convincing—and despite all the talk of preventing the NHS toppling over and lauding NHS workers as heroes, Labour voted for discriminatory employment practices and the brute force of job losses to coerce NHS staff into complying with a medical intervention or getting sacked.

In every wing of the Conservative Party there was a significant minority of MPs who, despite personal appeals from the Prime Minister, defied the Whip—and that means something important that this House might note.

This legislation has already been passed, so detailed scrutiny of each aspect of it is largely formal, with little meaning, but there are broader issues worth raising. One is trust. I am concerned that the Government’s response to omicron is eating away at trust in political institutions, and objective statistics and data have been misused recently, with examples of regular contradictions and different figures coming from Ministers with quick contradictions afterwards. We worry about misinformation on the web, but there has been a fair amount of it from official sources.

Also, can we remind ourselves that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, declared an “irreversible” road map out of lockdown? But that irreversible moment has now screeched to a halt and is reversing at rapid speed. Then we get shrill warnings that the UK is facing a “tidal wave” of omicron. Is that a bit like “one minute to midnight”? I am worried that there is overhype and too much hyperbole.

This is all in the real context that 95% of the population have antibodies. There has been a phenomenally successful vaccine take-up and, in the real-world international evidence—not speculative modelling—we are thankfully shown that, while this variant is highly transmissible, it is not as yet seen as a widespread, lethal threat by medics and scientists. And hyping up the potential threat can do real damage in other ways. If everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency, and there is always a danger in crying wolf.

The speed of omicron is not the only danger. More worrying is the dangerous speed with which the Government immediately have recourse to invasive restrictions. This is no longer a last resort. It is almost the first policy idea at which they grab. It is not based on weighing up the broad social pros and cons. We are not presented with a detailed cost-benefit analysis; it is deployed just in case there is a worst-case scenario. There is always a hint of worse to come. It might be vaccine passports now, but in the new year there will be three-dose vaccine passports.

The Prime Minister offered a rare opportunity for a national debate. I was quite excited. A national debate is sorely needed on the whole question of the balance of risk and the priorities which society wants to take. But, no, the Prime Minister’s offer of a national debate was to discuss mandatory vaccination, of all things.

This Government have made national sovereignty a byword and sovereignty something which people understand. I remind them that this direction of travel is in danger of trashing the Enlightenment ideals of individual sovereignty and bodily autonomy. John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration says,

“no man can be forced to be … healthful”

Vaccine passes are not inconvenient or a bother. I have one in my bag in the unlikely event that I might go to a nightclub. What does it mean? Most people will say, “I do not know what the fuss is about”, but there are far greater implications. Everyone’s freedom is limited if the state determines that it is contingent on accepting a medical treatment or providing medical information, or on a submission to public health priorities above all else. It is limited if we need a licence to go about our lives freely.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has asked us to put our political philosophies to one side, as though noble Lords are raising matters of principle as if we are in some sort of sixth-form debating chamber. I understand that this is a caricatured view. If society is to be completely reorganised around public health, and dangerous, illiberal principles are to be set, debate should at least be encouraged. I should have thought that liberals and democrats—as in Liberal Democrats—might be quite keen on that kind of a debate.

I quote from a new document which the Government has brought forward in the last few days. It is a modern Bill of Rights. In the foreword, we are told,

The United Kingdom has a long, proud, and diverse history of freedom. This stretches from Magna Carta in 1215”.

It then details all the proud freedom movements. It continues,

“Our proposals, which form the basis of this consultation, reflect the Government’s enduring commitment to liberty under the rule of law.”

What is the point of having documents declaring a commitment to liberty under the rule of law if liberty can be so easily dispensed with in the name of public health?

State power works. Of course it does. You can scare and threaten people into changing their behaviour, but is that what we want in our society? Many of my extended family have disagreed with my more liberal views on this question, throughout this pandemic, and have been enthusiastic adherents of lockdown. At the moment, they are not so much scared of the virus as of the next government press conference. They have become cynical about a lot of what they are being told. They are fearful that their way of life is being disrupted, rather than being immediately frightened of death.

In a recent pamphlet, Toxic Sociality: Reflections on a Pandemic, Josie Appleton makes the point that every pandemic has a social dynamic, as well as an epidemiological cause which structures the way the disease is seen and responded to. In many ways, my extended family has noticed that there is more to life than epidemiology. There has been a period when they have been able to meet publicly and socially to discuss what kind of priorities they want. It is important not to dismiss that social side. It seems to me that one clear and present danger is that social cohesion is now threatened by the kind of messaging that we are getting around the virus. Human interaction is presented as a contagion. All the unregulated examples of free conviviality and spontaneous social gatherings, such as going to a nightclub without showing a pass, are presented as toxic. Free association is being replaced by state-authorised association.

We are encouraged to view the unvaccinated as “the other”, as lesser, to be excluded from aspects of society and employment and discriminated against—not there to be encouraged or persuaded into the vaccine, but threatened. This is not making a positive case for the wonders of the vaccine and it promises to backfire.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made a point about what he considered to be the role of this House. I thought that its role was to scrutinise and be critical. I hope that in the new year this House gives a lead, not just by going along with whatever we are told but by asking questions and potentially prioritising the importance of a free society, without having to apologise for it.