Is a 10 year jail term proportionate for lying about quarantine?

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My friend Steve has opened up this question and indicated a reluctance to enter into the specific debate although eventually he did give his opinion. I on the other hand am happy to wade in to the specific debate and to say that I think a ten year prison sentence is perfectly reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances. I will explain why shortly and also seek to draw some lessons for the church..

First of all, cards on the table. You will know by now that I’m more on the sceptical end of the spectrum when it comes to the benefits of lockdowns. I wasn’t convinced that full lockdowns of the type we’ve experienced were the best course of action (recognising that this is a question well outside of my sphere of expertise).

However, if there was going to be a lockdown then my view always was that you should do it properly. Whilst people bemoan our authoritarian state, the reality is that we are a long way off from it. Unless you decide to take a coffee out to a Peak District reservoir, you are quite unlikely to meet a police checkpoint. The roads are busy and the parks open.  Countries that do lockdowns best seem to go for the short, sharp shock, a quicker but more complete lockdown with tougher penalties for non compliance.

And so, it is my view that rather than introducing more and more measures in the hope that the public’s behaviour will gradually catch up, that stricter enforcement of current measures should be a higher priority.  What that means is that we need to recognise that there is culpability in some cases.  We can divide the population into the following categories

  • Those seeking to obey the measures to the best of their ability whether or not they agree with them.
  • Those who are unable to follow the measures strictly due to life circumstances.
  • Those who are confused by the measures and so are likely to break them unintentionally.
  • Those who wilfully and recklessly choose to disregard the measures.

Now, strict liability is not interested in moral culpability. All that matters is whether the letter of the law was broken.  It does not distinguish between the person who claims confusion and ignorance over and against the person who wilfully disregards the regulations.  I am not convinced that this is reasonable and fair. 

I’ve argued before that in the small number of cases where someone wilfully goes against the COVID rules that we should respond in the same way that we respond to the problem of dangerous and reckless driving. Drivers are subject to fixed penalty notices for certain infringements such as speeding. However, drivers who are reckless are subject to criminal law standards and morally culpable if their recklessness and dangerousness leads to injury or death. In the same way, those who are wilfully refusing to comply with COVID rules out of a reckless disregard for the lives of others should be subject to criminal penalties.

Now, take the case of someone who lies in order to circumnavigate quarantine, let’s think about what they have done. First of all, we need to remember that the Bible treats lying as incredibly serious, not just a minor misdemeanour.  Secondly, consider the potential affect of that lie.  It has two consequences. First of all, it risks causing more people to be infected and more people to die. Secondly, if we are not able to get robust protections in place then it is likely to extend the deprivation of people’s liberties for longer. 

Whether 1 year 5 years or 10 is proportionate is perhaps something to debate further. However, it is worth noting that for comparison, perjury in the UK is treated as a serious offence with prison sentences of up to 7 years. That’s a little less than the ten here  but then in the COVID case we are factoring in both the moral reprehensibility and the potential consequences of the crime.[1] What the ten year sentence says is that we continue to take lying very seriously and that we believe that the consequences of lying in this case are significant due to the resultant harm to life and liberty.

Where I think the Government comes unstuck in its approach is this does look more knee jerk and more like they are just throwing out big number penalties and a deterrent. That’s unlikely to work and proportionality would be better served by consistent penalties across the board.

But Steve raised the question of proportionality in church and I want to come to that now. I agree with him that we can respond in a knee-jerk manner which ends up being disproportionate. WE should be wary of that. However, proportionality also tells us what we value and laws which show that we still value truth and life are not to be sneezed at.

[1] Causing death by dangerous driving is subject to a penalty of 14 years.

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