Life & Culture

Book review: Emergency State: How We Lost Our Freedoms in the Pandemic and Why it Matters - When Covid ruled us

It’s hard to disagree with human rights lawyer Adam Wagner when he writes in his new book that 'British society became as close to a police state as in living memory' when coronavirus struck


Emergency State:
How We Lost Our Freedoms in the Pandemic and Why
it Matters
By Adam Wagner
Bodley Head, £14.99

It must have enlivened the tedium of lockdown to see a young man getting off his bike in a North London park and asking two patrolling Metropolitan Police officers what exactly they were up to.

After all, it’s normally the other way round. The policemen explained that they were “engaging” with citizens and “explaining” the lockdown regulations to them, but it rapidly became apparent to their inquisitor, Jewish human rights barrister Adam Wagner, that they didn’t really have a clue what was in the Covid rules that dominated our lives for the best part of two years.

As Wagner relates in his invaluable new book, quizzing police officers and other officials attempting to enforce emergency regulations became his lockdown hobby. It swiftly became clear that none of them knew what they were doing but it didn’t stop them doing it.

Wagner is at pains not to criticise them. The fault lay in the mass of emergency regulations which the Government kept issuing in its frantic bid to control the spread of Covid until the public could be vaccinated against the deadly virus.

He picks his way through the forest of legislation and regulation that sprang up and changed our way of life almost overnight: the Emergency State that provides his title. He was a fierce critic from the first, starting a Twitter thread detailing abuses of the new rules and becoming a go-to figure for media inquiries.

Even police officers regularly asked him for guidance.

The absurdities and injustices that resulted were legion. For instance, Wagner explains that sex indoors with anyone but your regular partner could be interpreted as being illegal for long periods between 2020 and 2022. Unfortunately, this does not appear to have been tested in court. More serious is the statistic that nearly 120,000 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for Covid regulation breaches were issued in two years in England and Wales; Wagner recommends that all of them should now be reviewed.

The UK was not alone, of course: other European countries imposed far more fines, and many of us will have experienced Israel’s tough police enforcement of their rules, particularly with travellers from abroad.

Wagner reserves his strongest criticism for the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the Covid legislation.

The Coronavirus Bill of March 2020 ran to 329 pages and more than 135,000 words yet was debated for just six hours in the Commons and seven and a half in the Lords.

“This was a vast piece of legislation which demanded full scrutiny and debate, not a perfunctory few hours,” he writes.

But what else could Boris Johnson’s government have done? It was already being assailed, particularly from the left, where it is clear Wagner’s sympathies lie, for not having imposed stringent restrictions even sooner.

Imagine the public outcry if Parliament had taken several months to examine the Bill properly while the bodies piled up around the country.

Wagner does not duck the question. He admits the state has a duty to act in emergencies such as Covid and this will inevitably impinge on individual liberty, but believes emergency laws should be kept under constant review.

His other big recommendation is a codified constitution, although having one didn’t help the US and France combat Covid any better than us. France, indeed, issued six times as many FPNs per head as England and Wales.

Wagner believes human rights should be “at the heart of government decision-making during a state of emergency”, which is what you’d expect from a human rights lawyer.

But it’s hard to disagree when he writes: “British society became as close to a police state as in living memory.” The most important legacy of the pandemic may be to avoid that ever happening again.

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