Boris Johnson's police state won't solve the coronavirus crisis

Boris Johnson's police state won't solve the coronavirus crisis
6 min read
28 Apr, 2020
Comment: Johnson's government is shifting blame onto the poor, and away from his shocking lack of leadership and neglect of essential state services, writes Malia Bouattia.
Police have been granted new powers to issue fines and disperse people [Getty]
As worries over Covid-19 and its fallout increase in the face of an ever rising death toll, greater police powers may provide some with the temporary illusion that action is being taken to "keep us safe". Unfortunately, this is just another attempt by the UK government to address a symptom, rather than the cause of breaches to self-isolation. 

Why is it that the public is being overly-policed, chased out of parks, and controlled in the streets, as though we alone, are responsible for the spread of Covid-19? It seems the prime minister needs reminding of his own government's poor approach, which has led us directly to the current crisis.

In fact, at the end of January, Johnson's health secretary, Matt Hancock, erroneously stated that the UK
population was at "low" risk. The lack of seriousness with which Boris approached the growing pandemic was also clear from his absence during numerous essential Cobra meetings on the virus. 

Yet, as our leaders ignored all the signs in the name of keeping the economy working, infection rates and death tolls kept rising, and the global spread of the novel coronavirus was gathering speed. News of more and more stringent laws by neighbouring European countries was coming in thick and fast. Yet, in March, the prime minister, when addressing the nation, continued to play on the "Keep calm, and carry on" mantra. 

He stated that schools and universities wouldn't close, mass gatherings such as sports or music events wouldn't be cancelled, but that they would be keeping an eye on things - whatever that was supposed to mean.

The scenes of mass presence at the horse races and the Liverpool Champions' League football game, while the equivalent game in France took place behind closed doors, captured powerfully the total lack of care exercised by our government.

It reeks of class condescension and stinks of petty cruelty

Once the announcement finally came from Boris Johnson that he was backtracking - closing schools, prohibiting mass gatherings, restricting travel and calling on people to remain indoors - it was impossible not to wonder why it had taken so long. It doesn't take a scientist to see how the UK government's incredibly slow response has impacted health workers' ability to contain the crisis.

That is, aside from the other important factor, which is that cuts to the NHS have left it unable to respond to all the cases, because of scarce resources and a depleted workforce. A lack of adequate testing material, protective gear, and ventilators are the direct consequences of state neglect - and the direct cause of countless deaths. And "countless" is right, given the recent news that death rates have been underreported in official data. 

Furthermore, there is little acknowledgement that self-isolation is a much more difficult task for the poorest in our society. For too many, this period is not the picture perfect image of families collectively joining an interactive yoga session, projected on plasma-screen TVs in large, spacious houses; or BBQs in the garden every evening. 

Instead, it is overcrowded homes and council houses, few resources with which to keep the children active and occupied throughout the day - let alone home school them. It is a reality of an even greater struggle to be able pay for food and bills, and deal with the fear of eviction. It is the daily decision of whether to stay home without an income, or go to work and risk one's health.

Read more: Mosque morgue shows heavy coronavirus toll on UK Muslims and other minorities

Public parks are, in those circumstances, a rare and vital resource for families to get out, while being trusted to remain at a distance from others.

Yet, what is the government's response to this? It is to arm the police with greater stop and search powers and to crank up the repression. Policing doesn't solve this issue, it is simply increasing the level of violence against the poorest, while shifting the narrative away from state murder through neglect, to the unwieldy poor putting people at risk by refusing to stay indoors.  

So far there have already been 112,000 reported coronavirus-related incidents and 178,000 anti-social behaviour incidents. These numbers beggar belief. 

Between 27 March and 13 April, the police had already issued 3,203 fines in England alone. Was the amount, which can go up to a whopping £960, decided based on the average income? What happens to those on Job Seeker's Allowance? Given the rise in those needing benefits due to job losses brought on by the lockdown, giving people fines during a period of heightened hardship is clearly not a solution. In fact, it reeks of class condescension and stinks of petty cruelty. 

The impacts of the extended police powers which were introduced through the Coronavirus Act 2020, have also encouraged people to "inform" on one another. Jonathan Sumption, the former supreme court justice said that some of the police practices resembled those of a "police state". At a time when people's first instinct has been to come act in solidarity, state policy is actively pushing in the other direction. 

The risk of overzealous officers using these new found practices for their power plays is also real. One piece of footage from Lancashire, for example, showed a young man resisting the demand by a police officer to give him his car keys, and the officer responding by telling him he would "make something up" to justify detaining him. 

This has all meant that people of colour, migrants and Muslims are living under heightened fear of racial profiling by the police - an ongoing and well documented issue, worth remembering as we commemorate the anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's racist murder this week.

There is little acknowledgement that self-isolation is a much more difficult task for the poorest in our society

This fear of police violence and discrimination has now also extended to neighbours, passersby, and anyone who sees them in a public space. 

In addition, the beginning of Ramadan saw right-wing pundits and activists ramping up attacks over Muslims bringing on a "Corona Jihad" and spreading the disease through public gatherings. Many of us are wondering whether wearing traditional outfits, putting on a hijab, growing a beard, or any other outward change to our appearance might lead to people mistaking us for visitors, and therefore in breach of social distancing. 

Groups like the London Campaign against Police and State Violence (LCAPSV), Netpol, StopWatch and The Monitoring Group have all warned of the risks to increased policing. They have called on people to consider the context carefully before calling the police to inform on those they see outdoors.

This includes those serving vulnerable people or those in danger who may be  fleeing abuse at home - a particularly important question given the
spike in domestic abuse under conditions of lockdown. The same groups also provide contacts for anyone who is worried about heavy handed police activity.  

Given the growing number of complaints about police practices, and the trending #policestate hashtag, it is important that people are equipped with the knowledge that this is not a period of "anything goes" for state forces, even if some officers consider it to be the case. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.