UK launches battle plan to fight Covid-19

War footing: The army may be called in to support over-stretched emergency services. © Matt Brown

Is personal freedom as important as public health? The UK has outlined sweeping emergency powers to stop Covid-19 – but should a democratic government use force to keep people healthy?

Confined to your house and forbidden from gathering in public. That’s the extreme scenario facing people in the UK, after Boris Johnson yesterday announced an action plan to combat Covid-19. The disease has killed over 3,000 globally and spread to 73 countries. Johnson says a major UK outbreak is now “highly likely”.

The new powers follow similar announcements in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Italy has isolated 11 towns and China is credited with containing the virus through an unprecedented quarantine of millions of people.

“Epidemics reveal whom and what societies value,” says historian of medicine, David Jones. Which do we value more: personal freedom or public health?

For much of history, the answer was simple: the common good comes first. In the 19th Century, mandatory vaccinations helped eradicate smallpox. Immigrants arriving in the US, in the 20th Century, faced obligatory medical examinations and isolation to stop the spread of disease.

“Public health prioritises the collective good over individual freedom,” says epidemiologist, Elizabeth Pisani. We should be “grateful” that an authoritarian government in China responded so quickly without concerns for civil liberties.

However, a top-down response can backfire. When HIV spread rapidly among the US gay community in the 1980s, people refused compulsory testing and quarantine, feeling they were being treated like criminals. Public health officials had to rethink their approach.

No one enjoys losing their freedom. But experts argue that government measures will always appear extreme and heavy-handed because no one knows how bad the epidemic is going to be. With so much uncertainty, it is better to do too much than too little to stop the virus.

Devi Sridhar at Edinburgh University argues that the key is trust. If people feel “the government has their best interest at heart”, they will self-isolate and change their behaviour, without the need for force. Research shows democracies manage epidemics better than authoritarian regimes because they trust the medical advice and understand why emergency action must be taken.

So, are personal freedoms as important as public health?

Live unfree or die

Although liberty is a fundamental democratic value, we accept that there are times those freedoms must be sacrificed to protect the community. This is true in war-time, but it is just as important when facing an epidemic. Someone who refuses to wash their hands or stay in quarantine could endanger thousands. So long as the outbreak lasts, we cannot afford these kinds of freedom.

On the other hand, many argue there is no contradiction between personal freedom and public health. If our liberty is respected, governments must provide honest and accurate information to convince individuals to change their behaviour. Whether fighting wars or diseases, democratic societies must never give up the human and civil rights that define them. Once lost, those rights are often hard to win back.

You Decide

  1. Would you prefer to be healthy and in prison, or free and sick?
  2. Are dictatorships better at fighting disease?


  1. Use one piece of paper to design a leaflet to inform the public about the action plan on Covid-19 and how they can help stop it.
  2. You are a civil liberties campaign group and you want to make sure the government does not abuse its new powers. In groups of three, discuss ways to protect freedoms whilst fighting the virus.

Some People Say...

“In health, there is freedom. Health is the first of all liberties.”

Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881), Swiss philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In a democracy, there is a “social contract” (an unwritten agreement) between the public and the government. The people agree to give up some of their freedom and rights for the “common good” of society. The government is expected to protect people’s health from threats, such as crime, war, and disease. However, the government is also expected to protect civil liberties, the rights to privacy, and liberty. So, a balance must be struck between personal freedom and public health.
What do we not know?
There will always be disagreement about how we strike that balance. At the authoritarian end of the spectrum, public health is always more important than personal freedom. But then do we still live in a democracy? At the other end, personal freedom should never be given up. But then how can a society fight an infectious disease? Between these extremes, governments must decide how long and to what extent they will use emergency powers. Overuse them and they may lose the trust and support of the public.

Word Watch

Mandatory vaccinations
An 1873 Act made child vaccinations compulsory. In the US, debate continues over whether parents should be forced to have their children vaccinated.
An infectious disease that was finally eradicated globally in 1980. It killed 300 million people in the 20th Century, making it one the deadliest infectious diseases.
A scientist that studies the spread of disease.
Unlike democratic societies, authoritarian governments do not respect personal freedom.
The human immunodeficiency virus.
The government is encouraging people who have come into contact with the virus to stay at home.

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