“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

C. S. Lewis

Throughout this pandemic I’ve been critical of the response from Stormont and Westminster and even more of the press and what I believe to have been an abdication of their responsibility to hold politicians to account – to ask if they have consider the costs of their actions relating to covid and lockdowns. That doesn’t necessarily even mean lockdowns were a bad idea, but the fact the press has done very little to challenge governments who have been, at best, heavy handed in their attitude towards our basic human rights and civil liberties.

I decided to try and get some answers for myself. I put five questions to each of the governing parties in the executive – though the only party who chose to respond was Alliance. Whilst the answers given by their Health spokesperson, Paula Bradshaw, were quite alarming to me personally, I want to give credit to the Alliance party for taking the time to respond. That is generally how our system used to function, journalists asked tough and probing questions and governments answered – everything outside the mainstream has not always been considered misinformation or conspiracy theories. Questioning government decisions used to be the primary function of journalists, whether or not you agreed with their point of view.

These were the answers given by the Alliance Health Spokesperson, Paula Bradshaw.

  1. At what point do you consider it to be safe to lift all restrictions?

It will never, strictly speaking, be “safe” to lift all restrictions; the assessment is whether it is sufficiently low risk. There is also a distinction between lifting restrictions within any given country or jurisdiction, and lifting restrictions on travel.

Within Northern Ireland and the Common Travel Area broadly, it may be possible to lift nearly all restrictions once the vaccine has been offered to the entire population, although even that will depend on the exact outcome of the programme. We may also have to be prepared for the sporadic re-introduction of restrictions in local areas if a variant of the virus begins to spread and causes sickness.

We have to be realistic that, even if our vaccination programme is completed and even if there is no subsequent need for “booster” vaccinations, much of the rest of the world will not be vaccinated. So it is hard to foresee an absolute lifting of all restrictions including on international travel until at least 2023.

Ultimately, this must all be dependent on data, not dates.

  1. What consideration has been given to the economic cost to government, individuals, and businesses of continued restrictions?

I am not sure I entirely accept the premise of the question. The pandemic is the economic issue; they are one and the same thing. If a deadly virus is circulating, people are not going to go out and spend their money in crowded spaces anyway.

A better way of looking at this question is how we prepare for the re-build – of the post-pandemic economy, of post-pandemic relationships and indeed of the post-Pandemic health service. One major concern in that regard is mental well-being.

  1. What consideration has been given to the mental health of people struggling through this time?

Mental well-being may well prove to be the biggest issue globally as we move towards recovery. People will have suffered for a whole host of reasons and in a whole host of ways, and their reaction to that will depend on a whole host of circumstances. This will require not just significant investment in mental health services, but also in mental health awareness. We will all have a role in helping.

  1. What consideration has been given to the fact that human rights enshrined by the UN and civil liberties that we took for granted have been removed indefinitely?

Human rights are not absolute – it is always accepted they can be restricted in an emergency, not least to save lives as in this case.

Nevertheless, we should not just “get used” to these liberties being withdrawn. We must remember at every stage the balance of judgement has to be against restrictions to civil liberties – in other words, unless there is a clear reason for maintaining a restriction, it should be withdrawn. As a representative of a liberal party, I state words to this effect in every Assembly debate on the matter.

  1. Will there ever be a vote on the massive increase in government and policing power?

There has already been such a vote – it took place in Parliament when the emergency legislation came into effect and in the Assembly when legislative consent for this (the relevant amendments for Northern Ireland were contained in the original UK legislation) was granted. This is then repeated every few months to allow for an extension.

Additionally, such emergency legislation is already drafted for emergencies of this nature, and is reviewed by Committees periodically – it had last been reviewed in Northern Ireland in 2016.

I’ve been wondering over the past year, how much do any of us truly appreciate or comprehend important our human rights and freedoms are; ones that we take for granted in much of the developed world. Ones that our ancestors fought and died to protect against a totalitarian police state. We’re rapidly descending into a world in which our most basic rights and freedoms, those laid out in the UN declaration on human rights, freedom of speech, movement (a right we were devastated to lose as part of Brexit) and assembly. We agreed laws on human testing, bio-ethics, experimentation, and freedom of thought and expression after the horrors seen during the 20th century in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Communist China. I think we’ve forgotten why we put these rules in place, it is because, in the long tale of human history, governments have abused and murdered more people than any other single cause of death. We may live in the most tolerant and peaceful time in history (hard to believe, but it is true – violent disagreements on Twitter don’t count), however, that does not mean that the potential for those in power to become corrupted and dangerous has disappeared with the home telephone. 

The victims of lockdowns have been forgotten and the goal-posts to reopening have been repeatedly shifted, with murmurs of more lockdowns in the coming winter circling already. We gave up our rights temporarily, due to an emergency situation – one that was mercilessly exploited by the government at Westminster to hand hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer money to their friends and donors. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the sheer horror of this alone – if you’re not angry about it, you’re not looking closely enough. They are standing on the graves of the dead to line the pockets of their fellow ruling class cronies. 

Laura Dodsworth, author of A State Of Fear, believes that we gave up these rights because of fear. Fear that has been amplified and exploited by the pharmaceutical industry, our increasingly authoritarian government, and the media as a whole. The civil liberties that we surrendered to this fear have been the bedrock of the entire developed world. As attested to in the wonderful book, Why Nations Fail, widespread economic and political freedoms have been the driver of prosperity in human civilisation throughout all of recorded history, from ancient Rome to London and New York in the 21st century. Every time a society begins to reduce the amount of political and economic freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, the prosperity and innovation begins to dry up. I do not believe it is coincidence (and neither do the authors of the book) that we live in one of the most technologically advanced, diverse, and prosperous societies in global history. There are obviously still quite massive flaws in our system, that have arisen as economic and political freedom has been reduced by corruption and inequality, but I think we have to acknowledge that the freedom we have been gifted as a society has had far-reaching benefits and enables to live in the society we do. 

This quote from Jonathan Ketchum (PHD) in his article No Free Lunch on CollateralGlobal.org perfectly sums up the trade-off we have been asked to make,

“Potential benefits include saved lives and preserved health from reduced COVID-19 transmission. Potential costs include death and worsened health due to isolation, inactivity, and loss of education, medical care, safety nets, employment, and income. Some of these costs, sadly, remain ahead of us, including deaths from delays in cancer screening and treatment, rising opioid overdose, and harms to the life expectancy of today’s children due to lost schooling.”

So now that the major threat of covid hasbeen all-but vanquished by a combination of natural immunity and a stunningly rapid vaccine roll-out. A study released by the ONS this week found that more than eight in 10 adults in most parts of the UK are now likely to have the antibodies. In Northern Ireland, the latest estimate is 85.4 percent, up from 74.2 percent. Northern Ireland specifically has no one in ICU related to covid and we are recording just one death within 28 days of a positive test per week. With Ivermectin finally being trialed by the UK government as another treatment (one whose effectiveness has been repeatedly undermined and discussion of it censored for bizarre and unknown reasons), we should be celebrating wildly that we can put this 18 month, slow-motion horror show behind us. There is no longer a major threat to the vulnerable or to the NHS and thus I believe it is time to end the infringements upon our basic rights and freedoms. The justification for them to endure no longer exists. The damage we are inflicting upon our economy and wider society is utterly unnecessary and any attempt to cast this as precautionary is not understanding the impact of what lockdown has done to the economy, to individual and collective mental and physical health, and to small businesses and self-employed folks already struggling with the complications of Brexit and the NI Protocol disaster. 

The idea that we must still be scared is ridiculous. Science, the great hero and villain of 2020, has brought us to the end stage of the pandemic, but fear has become a powerful weapon for government and the media to wield and they are unlikely to give it up easily or even willingly. Although Paula Bradshaw is not the Health Minister, it is concerning to me that this is the language that is being used and the measures that are being discussed by one of the largest parties in government at Stormont. I believe that this statement is coming from a desire to do good and keep people safe, but these restrictions cannot continue forever if we wish to live in a free and open society and it is time to let people make their own decisions. That is the free society that I thought everyone believed we should have and was one of the major benefits of living in the United Kingdom. Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson told me during my podcast with him that the removal of these rights and freedoms weighed heavily on some of those in government. I would kindly request that they do the bare minimum and speak up for the basic rights that they claim to believe in. 

I understand everyone is scared right now, either of the response by government or by the virus itself (it’s something I discussed with Laura Dodsworth in my interview with her) – perhaps both. But cowering in fear is not living. Terrorists use fear to control us. Do not give in to the same tactics because those delivering the message are wearing a suit.

To go away with, here are some points from the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights I believe we need to remember:

Article 3 – Human dignity and human rights

1. Human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms are to be fully respected.

2. The interests and welfare of the individual should have priority over the sole interest of science or society.

Article 4 – Benefit and harm

In applying and advancing scientific knowledge, medical practice and associated technologies, direct and indirect benefits to patients, research participants and other affected individuals should be maximized and any possible harm to such individuals should be minimized.

Article 5 – Autonomy and individual responsibility

The autonomy of persons to make decisions, while taking responsibility for those decisions and respecting the autonomy of others, is to be respected. For persons who are not capable of exercising autonomy, special measures are to be taken to protect their rights and interests.

Article 6 – Consent

1. Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.

Article 11 – Non-discrimination and non-stigmatization

No individual or group should be discriminated against or stigmatized on any grounds, in violation of human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Article 18 – Decision-making and addressing bioethical issues

1. Professionalism, honesty, integrity and transparency in decision-making should be promoted, in particular declarations of all conflicts of interest and appropriate sharing of knowledge. Every endeavour should be made to use the best available scientific knowledge and methodology in addressing and periodically reviewing bioethical issues.

2. Persons and professionals concerned and society as a whole should be engaged in dialogue on a regular basis.

3. Opportunities for informed pluralistic public debate, seeking the expression of all relevant opinions, should be promoted.

And from the UN Declaration On Human Rights.

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

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