Pipe Up or Pipe Down: The COVID Dilemma.

Earlier, in the second week of the Coronavirus lockdown, I tweeted a question, “Will Brits just arriving at @Gatwick_Airport from Peru be tested before joining the community?” This was in the light of a BA Flight just landing at Gatwick with those poor Brits who had been stranded in Peru. My question was particularly heightened by my own experience, some two weeks ago, when I was waved through customs at Heathrow from Gibraltar, with not as much as a hand wash, had I not asked to borrow one from an Officer.

Within a few minutes, in true Twitter fashion, I was chastised for raising the issue of testing the Brits just arriving back from Peru on the basis that testing was better directed to frontline services and that Peru was not a Covid “hotspot”. I was then told to “Pipe Down”.

This got me thinking. Let me say that it is not the first time and hopefully will not be the last, that someone wanted me to “pipe down” and that the merits of the debate between those of us who think that all our international borders should now have the benefit of testing, whether or not another jurisdiction is a “hot spot”  and those who think that because of the Governments lethargic response to getting testing equipment, we are compelled to make choices, is not a valid debate. Of course it is, it is a vital debate. It was the suggestion that the debate should not be articulated that gave me food for thought.

My mind turned to the authoritative observations of the former Supreme Court Judge, Lord Sumption, who told Radio 4’s World At One Programme that he thought that some policing of the present Covid crisis risked us falling into a police state. This caused a number of commentators on social media to politely suggest that His Lordship should have kept “schtum” as it was put and that making such critical remarks might make it easier for those who politically wished to undermine the judiciary and impugn their independence. In other words, that Lord Sumption should have “piped down”.

Again, I am not, in this piece, going to analyse the comments made by the former Supreme Court Judge. The question is, should he have made them?

In times such as this and thankfully, there are few precedents, governments place as a priority the seizing and maintaining of control over the population, or the herd, if you will.

This is, on one approach, absolutely understandable.

War time analogies are helpful.

The suppression of the Daily Worker newspaper by Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary in 1941 was criticised by Professor J. S. B. Haldane. He asked what the newspaper’s crime was and concluded “A very serious crime indeed. It is the only newspaper that opposes the government.”

Neither do the government’s view have to be consistent. Churchill gave John Platts Mills, the left wing barrister, the job of running a pro Soviet campaign saying “I’ve been teaching the British people since 1918 that the Russians eat their young. Take as much money as you need and change the public perception of them”.

Quite understandably, public morale is at the centre of the “Pipe Downers” position. After Dunkirk there was significant concern about how the manifest weakness of the British fighting forces might affect morale back at home. As a result, a military event of blundering ineptitude was transformed into an English epic of heroic proportions. As Major General Mason-MacFarlane, Director of Military Intelligence told the British Press,  ” I’m afraid there is going to be a considerable shock for the British public. It is your duty to act as shock-absorbers.

As Michael Foot wrote with a number of other journalists ” A miracle is born. This land of Britain is rich in heroes. She had brave, daring men in her Navy and Air Force as well as her Army. She had heroes in jerseys and sweaters and old rubber boots in all the fishing ports of Britain…” Indeed she did, and women too, but all this was an example of dissent, “Piping Down”.

Of course, this is not a time of war and despite how it may feel, far from it. Young men and women are not being sent to the front to die in their thousands in battle and all that most of them are being asked to do is stay inside.

There is, nevertheless, a palpable threat in the Coronavirus and one which is being challenged by the government using wartime techniques of control, be it of how we wash, how we exercise or how we think.

In 2020, we live in a World awash with views and opinions, some sound, some not so sound. Voices of authority matter. I find myself disagreeing with much of what Lord Sumption has said since his retirement, but that does not matter. When he speaks, people listen, the media who are not simply acting as “shock absorbers” listen. Many pieces on the over reaction of the police is prefaced with the comments made by Lord Sumption. He has significantly helped to elevate the debate into the public sphere.

By “Piping Up” the arguments on both sides are made. Whichever one prevails, perhaps matters not. What does matter and matters profoundly is that we are still allowed the air to question, challenge and dispute.

None of this, in my opinion will affect the future of the judiciary. But even if it did, any hypothetical government who would seek to diminish the role of our judge’s as independent individuals, may find a lot more “Piping up”

It is in times of any National Crisis that anyone who might not act like the ‘Herd’ is made to feel vulnerable. We must cherish them because when all this goes away, it is most likely going to be some of them who will ask why we got into this disaster in the first place.

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