A policing problem: why Boris may decide to ease lockdown sooner

Published by Craig Wilmann on March 12th 2021, 10:06am

One of the founding principles of the police in this country is that ‘the police are the public [and] the public are the police.’ Even during this year of unprecedented restrictions on our liberties, the laws which the police have had to enforce have had popular support. But is that beginning to change? And if so, will the police no longer be the public?

It is not yet one year since the formal beginning of lockdown but we are already marking some signification milestones. Yesterday, for instance, was precisely one year since the last proper football match was held in front of a full crowd, with Liverpool being knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid in what was, back then, a rare home defeat at Anfield.

Two things stand out when you try and consider how, if such foresight were possible, we in those distant days would have considered we today.

Firstly, I think we’d be utterly amazed that we have not only developed several workable Covid vaccines but that we in the UK have managed to vaccinate near enough everybody in the at risk groups. Secondly, and even more particularly given the vaccine success, I think we’d be amazed at the restrictions under which we are still living.

If you had told us back then that, a full year on from the initial lockdown, that we would still be unable to mix indoors with other households or to visit pubs, restaurants or other hospitality venues, I think few of us would have been able to believe it.

And yet, in poll after poll, the nation on the whole has supported the lockdown measures. After each new twist and turn of the pandemic story, the majority of people have surveyed their surroundings and said, ‘yes please, we’ll have some more restrictions.’

It is for this reason that comparisons between Boris Johnson’s government and a dictatorship are wide of the mark.

His various decrees, to ‘stay at home’, ‘leave the pub by 10pm’ and ‘only go to the pub if you want a scotch egg’ have carried many of the hallmarks of a dictator in a banana republic. But, while there have been gripes about individual policies, he and his government have had strong popular support for enforcing the restrictions. Hence why there have been so few instances of rules breaking.

And it is here where the police come in. Because, if you have a government passing laws that the public on the whole support, things are fairly straightforward for the men and women who have the enforce them. They are enforcing the law as agreed by the people.

The calculation was simple. There were high instances of a virus. The people at large believed that new laws were required to limit our freedoms. The government passed these laws. And the police were there to ensure that the rest of us fell into line.

But it now seems that we are approaching a point in time where there will no longer be high instances of the Covid virus. And, judging by recent behaviour, more and more people are coming to the conclusion that our freedoms should no longer be so severely limited. And, if this feeling continues to spread among the population, the police are likely to find that things are not straightforward at all.

According to The Spectator, ‘hospital admissions have fallen 80 per cent from the second wave’s peak. Deaths are down 85 per cent and cases down 90 per cent.’

At the same time, the paper reports that ‘six men in their twenties were fined £200 for meeting up around a campfire in Marlborough’, pointing out that ‘it’s hard to think that the officers involved will have taken any pleasure in this criminalisation of perfectly civil behaviour.’

And, as winter turns to spring, parks across the country are filling up with people in effect ‘breaking the law’ to see their friends.

On Mothers’ Day last year, the vast majority of adults opted to talk to their mum over the phone or computer. This Sunday, we may find mum’s the word as we all sneak off to see her in person.

And if the danger posed by the virus continues to drop, and if our behaviour continues to change, things will become increasingly difficult for the police.

Already, Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, is saying that the rules are no longer ‘manageable’, adding: ‘Police don’t want to police this. We’ve had enough of this.’

I recently spoke to a retired police officer (over the phone, of course) who told me that neither he nor any of his former colleagues would enforce these rules. And I would image that the feeling extends to many of those who are still working.

Since Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, the police in this country have never operated without the consent of the public. The second of his nine policing principles, which are still taught to officers today, is ‘To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.’

And it is the seventh principle that asserts that ‘the police are the public [and] the public are the police.’

Therefore if, as seems likely, cases continue to fall, and if, as also seems likely, more and more people begin to believe that the virus is no longer much of a threat, it would appear to me that one of three things will necessarily happen.

  1. We will witness police officers in this country breaking with nearly two hundred years of historical precedent, as they begin to enforce arbitrary laws for which there is no popular consent.
  2. The government will bring forward its dates for easing the lockdown.
  3. We will have laws prohibiting our freedoms which will be widely ignored. The ‘rule breaking’ will be so widespread that the police will stop trying to prevent it. Restaurants and pubs will remain closed, while we all gladly pour in and out of each other’s homes.

Outside of Derbyshire, and one or two other places, the first possibility seems very unlikely. And perhaps the third potential outcome is the one with the greatest chance of coming true.

But it is possible that a government who have acted in a dictatorial fashion but always with democratic support, may decide to follow the public yet again. And that therefore, despite ruling it out, they may yet decide to ease lockdown earlier than planned.

The prime minister has promised to be led by ‘data not dates.’ He will certainly have all the best numbers on virus transmissions and hospital admissions. But he will also have access to the numbers that gauge the mood of the nation. A cynic might argue that it is these numbers that he’s really been following all along.

Regardless, as we approach the Covid endgame, it is hard to believe that a serial election winner will decide that now is the moment to ignore the data that tells him what the people want.

And so, to ensure that the police remain the people and the people remain the police, we may soon discover that freedom is closer than we think. And who knows, maybe Liverpool will even stop losing at Anfield. 

Photo by King's Church International on Unsplash

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Authored By

Craig Wilmann
Executive Director
March 12th 2021, 10:06am

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