Are we to allow politicians to place themselves above the legal system?

In a year of curiosities, one of the more remarkably curious arguments made to pay service to power is the injunction to not “politicise” public health emergencies. Amid a sequence of catastrophes, defenders of the Conservative UK government variously instruct citizens to not make politics of COVID-19, or the National Health Service, or the reaction of the political class itself to this new challenge. For what on Earth do politics exist? If the question of how to govern society is not relevant during a crisis, then when?

Newly formed activist group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, a growing alliance of more than 800 relatives of those lost to the virus, takes the view that this is not only a question of political principle but one of law. In their petition to bring senior parliamentary figures to justice, they note:

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights imposes on Government signatories an obligation to refrain from taking life, and an obligation to take appropriate measures to safeguard life. The latter obligation includes a duty to hold an effective, independent, public investigation into an individual’s death where ‘operational’ or ‘systemic’ issues are [suspect] of contributing to the death. In particular, the duty arises where a Government knows, or ought to have known, of a risk to life and may have failed to take all reasonable steps to protect those at risk.

In fact, the 2019 Conservative manifesto makes alarming insinuations about “updating” the Human Rights Act to allow more space for government power, immediately followed by, as Nick Cohen notes, talk of “limiting the judicial review of ministers’ decisions by judges”. Does the following passage, reported in the Express, concern you at all?

Efforts to defend Mr Cummings’ [sic] actions even led Health Secretary Matt Hancock to indicate that fines levied on parents flouting lockdown rules due to childcare concerns could be reviewed.

Replace “Cummings” with your own name. Can you still imagine that passage making sense? Put simply: isn’t it the least bit scandalous that the law should change only when defending an incumbent aide? Are we to allow politicians to place themselves above the legal system as if it were a tool for their own ends?

For those of us who were self-isolating before it was cool, the concept of pestilence as a global threat (on par and intertwining with nuclear war and climate change) may not be new. Pathogens grow more resistant than ever. People live closer together and move around with greater ease. An increase of one degree in the Earth’s temperature may or may not mean a lot for the ice caps, or for rainforests – but for germs, which burgeon better closer to body temperature, it means a field day. COVID-19 may be a freak disease, or it may be the start of things to come.

In a statement made to press on June 11, the group argues “changes need to be made to safeguard people right now. Policies need to be put in place to prevent the loss of further lives to the current pandemic and remain in place so that we are prepared should a second wave or another worldwide event, such as this, happen again.”

The United Kingdom currently carries on its shoulders the third-largest official COVID-19 death toll in the world. Such was the lethargy in response to the challenge that many Britons question what the painstaking “lockdown” strategy achieved, if anything at all. Is this what happens when you tire “of listening to experts”? Boris Johnson ran his general election on the platform of a single issue, and 2020 is laying bare what it looks like to always be – as historians say of military generals – fighting the previous war.