Coronavirus: Public may accept draconian new laws, but not if they seem arbitrary – leader comment

The public has most been doing its bit in the fight against Covid-19, but politicians must avoid mixed messages about new rules designed to curb the disease’s spread.

The message on the M74 was pretty clear but there are situations were travel is still necessary (Picture: John Devlin)

The Scottish and UK governments are taking extraordinarily draconian steps in their efforts to tackle the threat posed by the coronavirus. However, the vast majority of people accept that life simply cannot continue as normal and that these are extraordinary times.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill – drawn up with cross-party support – is an astonishing document. It allows for the early release of convicted criminals, although not including those serving life sentences or sex offenders, if too many prison officers and staff fall ill, and for trials normally heard before a jury to be decided by a judge alone.

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Police have also been actively discouraging people from travelling for ‘non-essential’ reasons and imposing fines on those who break the rules. Derbyshire Police’s decision to use drones to film people walking in the Peak District was condemned by former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption as the actions of a “police state”.

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However, it was perhaps only to be expected that some officers would go a bit over the top in seeking to enforce rules brought in virtually overnight. With some notable exceptions, the public has accepted most of these measures; we have been ‘doing our bit’, displaying the sort of social responsibility that some feared was a relic of the past. Even graffiti artists – vandals in the eyes of some – have joined in with messages such as “Stay home”, sprayed onto a ScotRail train, and “Thank You NHS” painted onto a bridge over London’s M25.

Politicians can pat themselves on the back for helping to build a sense of community spirit and shared struggle by avoiding attempts to score party political points and rallying behind the governments of Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson, while making constructive criticisms. But, if we may make some of our own, our leaders need to work harder to ensure that the public does not receive mixed messages. People generally, and civil servants in particular, should be in no doubt about what is and is not allowed.

If it starts to feel like draconian measures are being applied arbitrarily, people will become less willing to accept them. Also, politicians need to be straight with the public, answering questions at press briefings as best they can – even if that involves saying “I don’t know”.

Maintaining public trust is vital to ensuring we all remain fully signed up to efforts to beat this deadly virus as soon as is humanly possible.