March 24, 2020 2.36 pm This story is over 49 months old

Barry Turner: Why the coronavirus lockdown trumps civil liberties

The true hallmark of a libertarian society

The Prime Minister has now taken the step that has for some days now been seen as inevitable, without using the highly charged word itself, he has effectively placed the population of the UK into lockdown.

This is of course the state of affairs that many of our European neighbours, though by no means most of them have been in for at least week now.

This is absolutely not the time for asking penetrating questions about whether we should have done this earlier or whether we should have done it at all.

It is not the time for laying blame or questioning competences or past decisions as has been the tradition of our media over every political decision made for many decades now.

It is the time for responsibility not recrimination.

The Prime Ministers decision based on the advice of some of the world’s leading experts in virology and epidemiology is the right one, under the current unprecedented circumstances, the only one.

We are all now too familiar with the warnings that this will not stop the spread of this extremely dangerous infection, but that it will slow it down.

That will save lives even if sadly it cannot save the lives of all of those who become infected with COVID-19.

Some commentators are already questioning the civil liberties implications of this lockdown. It is safe to say that virtually no one in the UK has any experience of what this means in a libertarian society.

Lockdowns are totally alien to us and Boris Johnson was sincere in his regret that he as Prime Minister had been forced to implement this.

To those who warn of consequences to civil liberties there is only one rebuttal. The right to life is an inalienable one, the right to socialise is not.

As students of human rights everywhere know when an inalienable right conflicts with a qualified right such as the right to freely associate, the qualified right always stands aside.

It could never be argued in a civil libertarian society that our right to go to the pub outweighed our elderly neighbours right to be safe from a real threat to their lives.

It can never be argued that our right to picnic in the park outweighs a sick person’s right to breath.

It is the first duty of any government to look after the people in its charge. We are used to our individual rights taking precedence in so many scenarios in our libertarian society.

We rightly value individual rights over those of the overburdening state, but this is a genuine exception.

It is often forgotten by those of us who demand that our individual rights are respected that no individual right is worth anything if it takes away the rights of others in achieving it.

If we have to surrender our precious rights to free expression, to free assembly and association temporarily to protect the rights of those more vulnerable then we prove ourselves deserving of those rights in the future.

So for now the best way to protect civil liberties is to do as our government has told us. Stay at home maintain social distancing and keep those most at risk as safe as possible.

That is the true hallmark of a libertarian society and one we should all hope in the near future we can be proud of.

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Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.