As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the globe, governments remain conscious of the devastation — personal, social, and economic — wreaked throughout society. In these unusual times of great struggle, a national effort emerges as the only viable way to minimise the effects of the deadly disease. As a result, governments across the globe have made drastic decisions and enacted legislation in order to best combat the disease. However, the new Coronavirus Act maximises national governments' power at the expense of personal liberties and individual freedoms. While many people accept and welcome these compromises, given the circumstances, the largely unchecked power at play raises concern for the future of society once we begin the transition back to normalcy.
In the United Kingdom, Parliament proposed the Coronavirus Act 2020 on 19 March. This was subsequently passed through the House of Commons and House of Lords, and received royal assent by 25 March. The outlined provisions allow the government to extend the long arm of the law into areas of people's lives which would otherwise have been left alone. For example, despite infringing on freedom of assembly, the Act granted the government the power to ban public events and prohibit intermingling between households.
Similarly, in normal circumstances, the police do not have the right to question people for merely being outside. However, the Act has awarded police officers and constables the power to reasonably enforce new social distancing guidelines, for instance by administering fines to those found to be flouting lockdown rules. Although the importance of lockdown rules is not lost on anybody, the individual judgment of officers is subjective and is a potential cause of future controversy. Furthermore, the Act has suspended scheduled elections in England and Wales to May 2021 to prevent large quantities of people from circulating through polling stations. It goes without saying that this is an act to contain the virus and protect people, yet holds revealing subtext. While some may label these elections as “less important” than the global pandemic, it signals to the public that their voice and vote have decreased value during this time. Essentially, as the government finds it easier to handle the pandemic without distraction, it has exercised its power to do away with or delay other criteria, even the opinions of its population.
The government's extended powers, while being understood and appreciated by many in such extenuating times, exist primarily unchecked and unbalanced. The power held by a Prime Minister's political party typically limits the extent of their influence, forcing them to operate within constraints. Additionally, ministers try to curry favour and maintain the support of other members of parliament, preventing the former from making extreme or unpopular decisions. However, in times of national emergency which cause large scale loss and widespread anxiety, the government is forced to make an exception. Each provision of the Coronavirus Act, due to its scale and intrusion on daily life, would have normally been debated heavily in Parliament.
Yet, the entirety of the Act was pushed through at an incredibly rapid pace, less than a week after it was first proposed. While political parties working together is a source of comfort and reassurance to British citizens, the lack of debate and opposition regarding the proposed measures creates an avenue of neglect. Due to the government’s swiftness in pushing forward the Act, not all provisions could have been discussed as thoroughly as usual, potentially leading to miscalculations. The looming threat of the virus may have also caused politicians to overlook errors within the Act. Crucially, it has resulted in a lack of balance both within the government, and between itself and its people.
Health organisations have mandated the tracking, tracing, and testing of people who have the virus, or are thought to, as a crucial tool to slow the infection rate. The implementation of these invasive methods to monitor the disease have been praised as efficient, despite forfeiting individual privacy and leaving governmental powers unchecked. This is bound to produce controversy and tension between constituents and those elected. While many are understanding of the circumstances and are willing to make concessions for the wellbeing of society, it is unclear for how long. As time drags forwards, the government can expect increasing pushback against measures which allow institutions to insert themselves in people’s lives with little regulation or supervision from a higher power.
Alarmingly, the Coronavirus Act allows its provisions to be reinstated by the government if deemed necessary and continuously examined for the next two years. Two years is viewed by many as too long for such an infringement on daily life, while others have accepted the idea of a "new normal" for an extended span of time. This period of increased national power seems unsettling when fundamental individual freedoms are sacrificed. The government must also maintain brutal honesty with itself to relinquish the powers granted at the appropriate time, even if that happens to be before the two years. While citizens demanded for Parliament to take an active role in addressing the pandemic, granting the initial permission for this power, it may later be questioned if the government acts overzealously.
However, at the same time, two years may not be long enough. The scientific community is working tirelessly on a vaccine, but even the most promising of prototypes have come across obstacles. Furthermore, clinical trials and observation of side effects, particularly those with vulnerable health conditions, requires time and patience. While the hope for a vaccine remains strong, an effective one may take years to discover and distribute, leaving citizens at a degree of risk. In the likelihood of such an outcome, the government could extend the duration of its increased power to protect people to the best of its ability.
There is no question that the world is faced with extremely trying circumstances at the moment. National powers are required to grapple with high death tolls and overwhelmed health workers, while also navigating their newly-extended authority over citizens. While many UK citizens have accepted the infringement on their individual rights for the betterment of the whole, the extensive powers willingly handed over to authority has created an incredibly delicate relationship. Some invasive methods of controlling the population and monitoring the spread of the virus have been praised worldwide, but they also breed tension between those elected to lead and their constituents.
Additionally, the longer the administration plays an active role in daily life, the more likely that unbalanced power will permeate into people's habits of mind. The government’s increased involvement makes people feel secure, and losing it after an extended period of time could increase concern and apprehension as society eventually returns to regularity. Battling rising levels of anxiety, segments of society may not feel secure to return to normalcy without a vaccine or the government's advice. Others, however, will believe the newfound power has continued for long enough.
The COVID-19 crisis has therefore highlighted the fragility of trust that accompanies practically unchecked power, and the docility of society when approaching authority for the sake of the circumstances. As global health hangs precariously in the balance, the changes in governing powers during the COVID-19 pandemic must endure both time and the opinion of their citizens.