The creation of a “Health Security Agency” was announced this week. An unusual name: British “security” services have not, so far, tended to involve public health officials. But perhaps the language is simply catching up with reality: that the fundamentals of a biosecurity state are now under construction. This is what ministers think the public now want: a big shift in the dial away from liberty so the state can better provide security. It’s happening incrementally, with no real debate.
Until recently, no government would have thought it was expected to control a virus. The wildest of the pandemic plans did not involve lockdown. But Wuhan showed what public health figures could “get away with” as Prof Ferguson put it – which changed everything. The definition of what government can “get away with” is being expanded week after week.
Controlling the circulation of viruses can, logically, be done by controlling what people do. So the old inalienable rights – freedom of assembly, of protest, of school education, to leave the country – become privileges to be removed or restored as ministers see fit. This might be the remit of the Health Security Agency. In Whitehall, people are thinking the unthinkable: one idea is citizens sending their temperature in every day using the NHS app…
This is the “precautionary principle”, perhaps the most influential idea of our times. It transforms the relationship between the individual and the state. It means all kinds of costs can be incurred – and freedoms suspended – just in case. There need be no real plausibility test, no balance of risk. In this black-box democracy, decisions are taken without transparency, Parliament is not consulted and the Cabinet told to get in line.