Brendan O’Neill

Derbyshire police should leave those dog walkers alone

Derbyshire police should leave those dog walkers alone
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The vast majority of Brits are behaving sensibly in this Covid-19 lockdown. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for some police forces. Some coppers are using this extraordinary emergency to throw their weight around and treat the public like aberrant schoolkids in need of a scolding.

There’s a Stasi feel to some of the excessive policing of the lockdown. Consider Derbyshire police’s use of drones to spy on people walking in the Peak District. Like jumped-up busybodies, the Derbyshire force posted a tweet yesterday saying its drone unit had been flying over ‘beauty spots across the county’ capturing images of people taking a stroll.

This is deeply sinister. The drone footage should alarm anyone who cares for liberty. It shows people doing perfectly normal and perfectly safe things and then reprimands them for allegedly sinning against the lockdown.

One clip shows a couple walking their dog. And then comes the stiff reprimand: ‘Walking your dog in the Peak District — not essential’. Other ‘not essential’ activities include ‘Going for a walk miles from home’ and ‘Going out of your way for an Instagram snap’. Oh, the irony of the police secretly filming people from the sky and then telling them off for taking a selfie. At least the person’s selfie was consensual, you authoritarian halfwits.

This is an outrage against liberty. The vast majority of people accept the lockdown and are adhering to the rules. And within those rules we are allowed out for certain reasons. To shop, to help vulnerable people, to get exercise. The citizens outrageously filmed by the Derbyshire Stasi drone were all getting exercise. They were not close to anyone else. They were in the vast, sparsely populated Peak District. That’s about as socially distanced as you can be.

Indeed, in response to Derbyshire police’s claim that people should not be driving their cars to get to a preferred spot for their daily exercise or their daily dog-walk, the Cabinet Office says actually they can do this. It’s fine. In which case someone really needs to rein in the Derbyshire cops. It is completely unacceptable for a police force to seek to restrict people’s movement more than the elected government has deemed necessary. That way lies tyrannical overreach.

When there was a refreshing pushback online against the Derbyshire cops’ drone antics — us Brits aren’t beaten yet! — a spokesman for the force said that what his officers have been doing is ‘not Big Brother’. Talk about protesting too much. The use of remote camera devices to spy on and shame citizens is textbook Big Brother.

Even as we all adhere to the lockdown and assist with the fight against Covid-19, we must keep a very close eye on the behaviour of the police and the growth of authoritarianism.

The police can now fine us £30, or more, if they think we are outside our homes without good reason. You can even be arrested. Police forces are creating online portals so that you can report on your neighbours if they are outside without good cause. I felt so depressed to read that they have created these portals because they had experienced ‘a big increase in reports’ by phone, which was putting a ‘strain’ on their call centres.

Have we become a nation of snitches? Are we really getting on the blower to the police if the guy next door has a sneaky second jog? Or if the woman across the road pops out for essential shopping that turns out to be a few bottles of wine? We have to be very careful not to let this health crisis turn us into a nation of whispering busybodies like something out of the GDR.

Roadblocks are coming next. There are already roadblocks in North Yorkshire, Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall, at which police are stopping motorists and asking them if their journeys are essential. But we’re still allowed to drive, right? We can drive for shopping, we can drive for our daily exercise. My view is that unless there is a large gathering, then the police should butt out. Trust the public a bit more — how about that?

We have to be vigilant on two fronts right now. We have to be vigilant about the spread of Covid-19. And we have to be vigilant about the spread of authoritarianism. The police have warmed to this lockdown far too breezily for my liking. And there has been far too little questioning of the extraordinary Coronavirus Bill, which grants the state the most extraordinary powers we have ever seen in this country in peacetime. Including the power to break up public events, arrest individuals suspected of having Covid-19, and section people on the say-so of just one doctor.

Covid-19 is causing much ill-health. We cannot also let it bring about a historic shift in the relationship between the state and the people, in which the state’s power grows and people’s liberty diminishes. The minute this lockdown ends, every one of these new powers should be dismantled, and we should have a mass public gathering to celebrate that. Film that, coppers.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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