It is reported that more than 80 Conservative MPs are prepared to rebel against the imposition of new coronavirus laws. The MP Steve Baker has invoked Orwell’s 1984 in his portrayal of a dystopian regime. The numbers are sufficient to defeat the Government and would represent a major reversal in its management of the crisis, at just the moment that deaths and infections are beginning to rise sharply.
The final straw was the overnight introduction of a new set of offences at the beginning of the week. Fines of at least £10,000 are to be imposed for a range of behaviours, including deliberately mis-identifying someone as a contact of an individual who had tested positive for an infection.
There are several possible explanations for this expansion of the disciplinary state.
Just as the Minister of Health sought to blame the malfunctioning of testing on too many fit people using the system, now the failure of the tracking mechanism will be attributed to a shadow army of maliciously nominated non-contacts.
Or ministers and officials have indeed identified a vulnerability in the structure of official surveillance. As I wrote in my entry for May 7, there is a long history of ‘snitching’ – using a new disciplinary mechanism to settle scores between neighbours. Introducing significant fines for infractions of regulations weaponises local disputes. If you are irritated by the noise someone next door is making, now at the swipe of an app, you can shut them in their house for a fortnight, or expose them to a hefty fine.
There is evidence that with the coronavirus entering its second wave as the nights draw in, tempers in communities are fraying. Mediators who deal with neighbourhood disputes are reporting a sharp increase in business.* According to a provider of such a service in Manchester, “The problems will get worse as people are home more. If the neighbours are being difficult and you can’t go out because of the weather, that’s going to cause a problem, whether it’s breaking lockdown rules or someone trimming your hedge.”
As the months pass, tolerance becomes frayed. The police 101 reporting line [for non-emergency issues] is said to be “swamped” with complaints about people breaching the ‘Rule of Six’ that was introduced as the second wave began. Some of these reports are well-founded, driven only by a concern to protect public health. Others have less heroic motives. A mediator explained that “in a tit-for-tat dispute, people will employ any kind of measure they can and make false allegations about breaches to settle a score.”
Or, finally, the new regulations are, as Steve Baker and others on the Conservative right are now claiming, the consequence of ministers and officials exploiting the shift of power from the individual to the collective that must happen in any pandemic. As the number of infections starts to rise again, they can amuse themselves by inventing new offences without any kind of Parliamentary scrutiny, in the latest case seemingly in the small hours of the morning.
It is a game without limits. Soon we will need a regulation fining those who maliciously report people for maliciously reporting their neighbours.