A lot of media attention and Christian commentary too this week was on speculation about the Government putting troops on the streets to deal with people who don’t comply with COVID-19. I came across some of the speculation in reaction to a letter that some church leaders have written to the government urging them not to take authoritarian measures
Well, the first thing to say is that it is highly unlikely that you are about to see armed soldiers patrolling Birmingham ready to crush any anti-lockdown uprising. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is what the Prime Minister has actually said. Questioned on Monday, he confirmed that if need be, the police would be able to call upon the army for support and to back fill roles. In Parliament, he said:
“We will provide the police with… the option to draw on military support where required to free up the police.”
Now, this is not unusual, in fact it is the normal kind of language used by governments when entering a time of emergency. The aim is not to have people living in fear of men with guns but to re-assure the public that additional resources will be found. In a worst case scenario, the normal emergency services may find themselves running short on personnel and resources as their own members have to self-isolate and as the workload goes up. In such a case, they will want to have the option open to draw on other resources and the military is their first port of call. The army were called up to help with flood defences earlier this year and 20000 have already been available to support the effort against COVID. Military personnel are not just those in the front line. Ways in which the army for example could help would include with logistics, with stepping into police other areas such as counter terrorism operations and providing some of their military police personnel.
So I would be surprised, even in the worst case scenario to see armed soldiers patrolling our neighbourhoods. The problem though is that some seem to have entered into a narrative where they have decided that the Government is in a move to introduce authoritarian measures in order to clamp down on freedom and as I observed in an early post, this is also being interpreted as targeting churches. As I explained before, I don’t think this is helpful. If we write to the Government and say “please don’t be authoritarian” then they are quite likely to write back and say “of course we won’t.”
You see, the issue we need to face is not some hypothetical scenario where we end up in an authoritarian police state but the real question about how helpful the specific measures are that are being introduced. In fact, that’s what we really care about isn’t it? None of these church leaders batted an eye lid when various governments did deploy the military on our streets in various counter terrorism initiatives. The issue is really that they are concerned that the army might be used to enforce things that they disagree with.
At this stage it is worth evaluating where we are. Today, saw some stricter measures coming in. The number that can attend weddings has been reduce, though oddly enough not the number who can attend funerals. Meanwhile pubs and restaurants will only be allowed to provide table service and will have to close at 10pm. There will be a delay in the reopening of sports venues for spectators too. Heavy penalties will be enforced. Indeed, if I were to sum up the current state of play, it seems that the Government has opted for rules which are much less strict than the original lockdown rules but more strictly enforced.
At the same time, we have already seen The Rule of Six implemented and a number of areas including the West Midlands are under local lockdown measures where entering each-others’ gardens and houses is forbidden.
The overall summary seems to be that the measures are less harsh or heavy than the original lockdown measures but enforcement is stricter.
I am concerned about a number of those measures. I think that we risk seeing people suffering from further isolation again. We need to urgently find ways of enabling social contact. Meanwhile whilst churches have been able to re-open a little, we are still stuck at the very unsatisfactory fist stage with no singing or socialisation and everyone wearing face masks. I had hoped to see us progressing out of these restrictions and I would urge SAGE and the Government to look again at how we safely socialise and engage in worship. It is not just that the new measures are restrictive, it’s also that they mean it is going to be even longer before other measures are removed.
My personal view is that we should be able to remove some of those restrictions safely and I would ask the Government to look again. I believe it can be possible to do more safely providing we choose the right things and act responsibly. Additionally, it makes a lot less sense to have additional local lockdown measures in place in some areas when national restrictions are in place. Indeed, those measures have either done their job in Bolton, Bradford and Oldham or they never will. So we should be pressing for the local lockdowns to be lifted in those areas sooner rather than later.
It Is important that we seek to comply with measures to do our best to help in the effort against COVID. At the same time, it is vital that we continue to challenge the government when we think that they are getting it wrong.