The UK government “deliberately stoked up” fear over coronavirus in order to justify lockdown restrictions that represent the “most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”, a former Supreme Court justice said on Tuesday.
Jonathan Sumption, giving the annual Cambridge Freshfields Lecture, attacked the government for imposing draconian restrictions on people’s lives using ministerial decrees with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.
The former Supreme Court justice, who is also a medieval historian, said he believed that future generations would look back on the measures taken to contain coronavirus “as a monument of collective hysteria and governmental folly”.
He criticised Boris Johnson’s government, which he said during the three months of lockdown had “placed everybody under a form of house arrest, qualified only by their right to do a limited number of things approved by ministers”.
“The sheer scale on which the government has sought to govern by decree creating new criminal offences sometimes several times a week on the mere say so of ministers, is in constitutional terms truly breathtaking,” Lord Sumption said in his speech, adding that proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Coronavirus Act had been “curtailed”.
Lord Sumption, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2018, has been consistently critical of the government for overstepping its powers on imposing coronavirus restrictions but these are his strongest pronouncements yet.
In his webcast speech hosted by Cambridge university’s Private Law Centre, Lord Sumption pointed out that government press statements on issues such as the two-metre social distancing rule “never had the force of law in England”.
The former judge said the government had “deliberately stoked up” fear about the pandemic with “the language of impending doom, the daily press conferences, the alarmist projections of mathematical modellers”.
Such was the public’s fear that it “effectively silenced government opposition in the House of Commons” and so parliament “allowed the Coronavirus Act to be steamrollered through with no real scrutiny”.
The former judge was also critical of the police, saying that some forces had exceeded the “vast powers they received” — pointing to Derbyshire police launching surveillance drones to film people walking in the countryside and another police force that had threatened to go through people’s shopping baskets looking for non-essential items.
“The implication was that in a crisis the police were entitled to do whatever they thought fit, without being unduly concerned about their legal powers. That is my definition of a police state,” Lord Sumption said.
Lord Sumption also warned that a move to a more authoritarian model of politics would outlast the current crisis. “The government has discovered the power of public fear to let it get its way. It will not forget.” he said.
Downing Street did not immediately respond to a request for comment.