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Mile End Institute

Parliament and COVID-19 - Professor Sophie Harman

If we’re unhappy about the UK going to war without parliamentary scrutiny why are we happy about the UK going to war against a virus without parliamentary scrutiny?

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Image of a London telephone box in the shadow of Big Ben at Westminster. 

Pandemics are not wars. But you would often struggle to notice given how war metaphors abound when it comes to describing the response to outbreaks. Boris Johnson’s talk of ‘beat the enemy’ ‘we must act like a wartime government’ follow a well-trodden path of ‘Total War on AIDS’ strategies, and calls to send in the military during the 2014/16 Ebola outbreak.

War metaphors or comparisons are not helpful during a pandemic. For people working in public health they evoke ideas of destruction rather than care, and suggest a state of emergency that can be avoided should the necessary public health measures have been implemented. War suggests the involvement of military and security actors that in some circumstances can undermine the work of public health actors and diminish public trust and confidence. Fundamentally, war metaphors can create a sense of war exceptionalism within government: government, or more specifically executive government and the Prime Minister, can do what they like because we are in exceptional times.

This is why Lady Hale’s intervention last week on the need for parliamentary scrutiny is so important. We are in exceptional times, but exceptional times call for governments to work in an exceptional manner – quickly, critically, and with full scrutiny of the evidence and science supporting decision-making. Exceptional should change how government works in a pandemic, not to silence government altogether.

This is where the war comparison comes in handy. Imagine the outrage if the Prime Minister decided to go to war without consulting parliament, he was just following the security experts and the generals. Similarly imagine how the justification to do so would be to act quickly to save lives. Whereas the public can often get on board with the latter argument, it rarely justifies the former. Parliamentary scrutiny is fundamental to our democratic process in the UK: it is vitally important during a major pandemic.

If we’re unhappy about the UK going to war without parliamentary scrutiny why are we happy about the UK going to war against a virus without parliamentary scrutiny? Pandemics are as destructive as war. Many in the world already knew and now most people know that they have huge immediate and long term consequences for societies facing the worst outbreaks. It is baffling that for something of this magnitude decision-making is being left to No. 10.

A common retort from public health experts will be to invoke the emergency imperative and that governments are the problem: politicians will act along party political lines and ignore or politicise the science. Hence adding more politicians to the mix will just make the situation much worse. Sure, some will. We have already seen how some politicians are using lockdown-as-un-British as a new populist trope. However given the major mistakes of the UK government in its handling of the pandemic from No.10, I would suggest a bit of parliamentary scrutiny cannot make things worse.

Proper parliamentary scrutiny need not slow down major decisions with regard to regional lockdowns, restrictions, and new quarantine measures. It can help translate such measures into effective strategies within different regions. Fundamentally, greater plurality in decision-making, even in a white and male dominated House of Commons, will provide greater recognition of the important gaps in the government’s strategy. We will never know if greater parliamentary scrutiny back in March would have led someone to question who looks after children when the schools close, who will protect victims of domestic abuse when they’re locked in their house, or where is the PPE for the care workers in their constituency, but there is a greater chance that these would have been asked should measures have been considered by the House than not.

Parts of parliament are undoubtedly super busy and heavily involved in different aspects of the COVID-19 response. Other parts not so much. Those with nothing to do may be tempted to start populist-baiting the country on lockdown measures: better to make them busy. If we know that beating COVID-19 involves us all, the all must include an adaptable but fast-moving and committed parliament. We’ve already seen what happens when we just leave the decisions to No. 10.

Professor Sophie Harman is an expert in global health politics and the author of ‘Global Health Governance.’ She has worked with UN Women, Women’s Budget Group and the Fawcett Society on the gender aspects of COVID-19 and has been called as an expert witness to the UK government on issues of global health security. Her research is currently supported by The Leverhulme Trust.