Balancing Security, Liberty and Common Sense
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Balancing Security, Liberty and Common Sense

 6th May 2020


Just one week after the UK first went into tighter lockdown to help contain the COVID-19 outbreak, there was criticisms over the way some police officers had been using their new powers to enforce social distancing.


A lot of media attention focussed on the Derbyshire police for stopping people exercising in the famous Peak District beauty spots, even pouring black dye in the popular ‘Blue Lagoon’ to put people off photographing it. These operations had even been brought into question by former supreme court justice Lord Sumption, who is quoted as saying on BBC Radio 4: “This is what a police state is like, it is a state in which a government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.” 


I don’t want to wade into the politics of this situation (that is something best left to political and legal experts!), but it has highlighted the need for security measures to fit the needs of those it protects. Clearly, security should predominantly be there for safety reasons, rather than to simply restrict our basic human rights.

Finding the Right Balance

To give some context to the police measures, it’s also worth remembering how quickly the UK lockdown situation has developed. The weekend before the tighter lockdown measures were brought into force, the media was awash with images of people flocking to outdoor locations such as beaches and coastal resorts, and notably to Snowdonia in Wales, making social distancing virtually impossible, even in usually empty places.


The introduction of the enhanced lockdown that began on 23rd March was undoubtedly partially due to this somewhat chaotic behaviour by the public, as the UK Government sort to more tightly control the spread of the virus. The police crackdown is also a direct response to this, but has, to some extent, been left to the common sense of officers to decide what is sensible behaviour by the public and what constitutes an unacceptable risk.


The situation has moved so quickly that responses by some police officers have become controversial and open to debate in the media. The emergency powers granted to the police are designed to assist them in restricting the movement of people and help slow the spread of the virus, but it is down to individual forces (and even individual teams and officers) to find the right balance, which in these unprecedented times is a big challenge for anyone!

Security for Safety

The security versus liberty debate is one which has preoccupied society going back through the ages and is still very prevalent today. The views of the people that security ‘protects’ are very important – something which I discussed in a recent article in ISJ.


People are much more likely to respect rules and adhere to a security regime if they believe it is for their overall benefit and safety. Airport security is a good example, we can all see that checking luggage and passengers/staff is a sensible precaution to protect everyone – the safety aspect is very clear.


However, if security teams are seen to be over-zealous or petty about the way they enforce the rules, this leads to frustration, disquiet and sometimes confrontation from those subject to the rules. There needs to be respect on both sides to make any security regime work properly, efficiently and safely.


The British Army has, for example, pursued a policy of ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ in the aftermath of a number of conflicts (including Afghanistan and Iraq) to help quell counterinsurgency in the local population. It is all too easy for a security regime to go from a safety measure to something more sinister if the public feel it is being misused.

A Sensible Response

Common sense goes a long way when it comes to dealing with enforced security in a lockdown situation. The public need to understand that some journeys are simply not necessary, but there also needs to be a balance from the authorities as well.


The latest police guidance on enforcement advises that officers apply the law: “In a system that is flexible, discretionary and pragmatic. This will enable officers to make sensible decisions and employ their judgement. Enforcement should be a last resort.”


Being human means sometimes making mistakes. Some members of the public will make bad decisions during the lockdown, whilst police officers may also make over-zealous decisions in response. These challenging times are a test of our willpower and patience, just as much as our physical resolve to beat not only the virus but also the stress and strain of social distancing.


There will be a lot to be learnt in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak and the balance of security and liberty will certainly be a key part of this.

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