by Dr John Fanning
On Wednesday March 17th, a large crowd of people – many presumed to be students – gathered in Liverpool’s Sefton Park to enjoy the spring sunshine. A 40-second video recorded in the park that afternoon captures a wonderful vista of youthful exuberance. Under a beautiful blue Merseyside sky and against the green-tinged backdrop of budding trees, what could easily be a thousand young people are seen congregating closely together. Many are wearing green, presumably to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Liverpool’s (and perhaps their own) proud Irish heritage. It is a vision of spring; a picture of hope and renewal, of optimism and fearlessness. The recording captures people standing and talking excitedly, scurrying through the crowd searching for their friends, dancing to the tinny beat of music from an unseen speaker, and sitting on picnic blankets and swigging from cans of lager. Two men pushing bikes walk into the frame; in the distance, people are playing catch. It is a joyous scene of fun and friendship. And almost everyone in it was breaking the law.
Naturally, the fun police – by which I mean Merseyside Police – were soon on the case. Dozens of officers alighted from the sort of heavy-duty police vans one might expect to see after a gangland shooting and strode purposefully into the park. They issued more than 40 fines for breaches of the coronavirus regulations, accusing at least one group of students of being part of an ‘organised festival’ before ordering them to pay a £100 fine, which will rise to £200 if unpaid after 14 days. Merseyside Police announced that it “will not tolerate irresponsible individuals” and issued a dispersal order covering a large area of south Liverpool. In a statement tinged with the sort of moral superiority that should have no place in modern policing, Superintendent Mark Wiggins said: “Unfortunately there are people who believe that the rules the rest of us abide by are not for them. We are here to protect our communities”. We can all sleep soundly in our beds, then.
The fallout from this episode is astonishing. I do not use Twitter and I seldom look at comments posted beneath news articles – there be dragons, etc. – but a brief survey of the Liverpool Echo’s website and Twitter this weekend was enough to make me lose any remaining faith I had in humanity. The students were described as a “shower of tramps”, “selfish little rats”, and “idiots” and urged – with a revolting civic nativism – to “Go back home to [their] own cities”. “They’re going to start another wave of the virus with their stupidity”, declared one of many armchair epidemiologists who weighed in with his considered view; “Water-cannon the lot of them”, suggested another.
If you were to read these comments out of context, you would be forgiven for thinking that they referenced a story about a riot or a violent protest – not a peaceful afternoon in the park. It is true that many people objected to the litter that the crowds left behind – which, to be fair, is terrible form – but this is not the first time Sefton Park has been strewn with rubbish on a sunny day and it was not the reason for the fines. It is a grim sign of how far we have travelled down the road towards authoritarianism that so many people think that young people enjoying an afternoon in the park deserve to be arrested, subject to crippling fines, water-cannoned, booted off their degree programmes, and so on. It is bad enough that anyone should think this way; that it should be people from Liverpool – a city famous for regularly cocking a snook at Westminster – demanding unquestioning compliance with Government guidelines under pain of the full coercive might of the state catapults us well-and-truly through the looking-glass.
But the most troubling statement of all came from the vice-chancellors of the city’s four principal higher education institutions: the University of Liverpool (Professor Dame Janet Beer), Liverpool John Moores University (Professor Ian Campbell), Liverpool Hope University (Professor Gerald Pillay) and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (Professor David Lalloo). In it, they said that they were “appalled” by the “reckless actions of those who gathered in Sefton Park” and reminded their student communities of their “crucial responsibility” to observe Government guidelines. To be clear, that would be the chief executive officers of the city’s universities describing the normal behaviour of people it is reasonable to assume are their students as “appalling”. Reflect on that for a moment.
It is sadly true that at least some of those who gathered in Sefton Park this week probably did break the law. The current rules prohibit “participation in outdoor gatherings”, which they define as assemblies of “more than two people” (paragraph 4 of Schedule 3A to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020). It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the people in the video fell foul of this rule.
Yet one exception to this is where the people in the gathering “are members of the same household” (paragraph 6 of Schedule 3A). Given that it is common for students to live in shared houses of multiple occupation, it is possible that their “household” might comprise a large number of people. For that reason, a group of, say, a dozen students might lawfully gather to enjoy “outdoor recreation” in a public place because they happen to live together (paragraph 2 of Schedule 3A). And there is nothing to stop a number of student households just happening to be in the park at the same time. It is worth remembering that people tend to go to public parks on sunny days and Sefton Park is on the edge of an area populated by students, so this sort of thing is not difficult to imagine. If a household of 12 Law students happens to be in the park at the same time as a separate household of 12 History students, then, as long as they do not converge, 24 students could lawfully be in the park. You can expand this example to include other households too; e.g., 12 Medics, 12 Sociologists, 12 Engineers, and so on. The rules do not specify how far apart the household groups in this example would have to be from each other. In an unrelated context, the rules prohibit anyone at a gathering for communal worship from “mingling” with someone who is not a member of their household (paragraph 9 of Schedule 3A). I cannot say with any certainty what would constitute unlawful ‘mingling’ – as far as I know, it is a novel concept in the law. If it applies to my example, the 12 Law students and 12 History students can sit in separate household groupings. But if one of the Historians walks over to the group of Lawyers to ask if she/he can borrow a bottle-opener, then Merseyside’s finest can storm in before anyone else is put at risk of contracting a respiratory illness from which she/he will almost certainly recover by such “irresponsible” behaviour.
What laughable, despotic nonsense. In one of his recent barnstorming interviews, Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court justice, predicted that “if the Government persists long enough with locking people down, civil disobedience is likely to be the result”. Not only that, but civil disobedience may be the most ‘public-spirited’ thing one can do in the face of despotic laws such as these. Some laws, he said, “invite breach”; lockdown is one of them. Not for the first time, I agree with Lord Sumption. The students in Sefton Park have highlighted the cruel absurdity of the rules and – as if anyone needed reminding – drawn attention to the heavy-handed policing that enforces them.
Instead of announcing how “appalled” they were, perhaps the city’s vice-chancellors could have employed their considerable influence to urge the Government to hasten the end of the lockdown? Or maybe they could have gone into bat for their students by asking Merseyside Police to show some common sense and cancel the fines? These young people have had their whole lives upended by the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Far from being “appalling”, their act of civil disobedience may well make them the vanguards of the restoration of our liberty. Fair play to them.
It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the raw deal that university students have had over the past twelve months. For more than a year, their entire higher education experience has been subject to unprecedented disruption. Most students must engage with their degree programmes remotely, listening to lecture recordings or logging into Zoom or Teams to ‘attend’ seminars. Since Christmas, many have had to do this from their family homes, often hundreds of miles away from the campus on which they originally chose to spend three or four years of their lives. Whether they are on campus or not, they have missed out on everything that enriches the student experience. Coffee rendezvous with classmates before a lecture, and the sly pint afterwards. The chance to broaden their intellectual and spiritual horizons through exposure to new and challenging ideas. The opportunity to play competitive sport or use gym facilities. To explore the library – or at least find out where it is for future reference. To join a student society. To do work experience or take a part-time job. To go on chaotic nights out that they will later struggle to recall. To discover the unadulterated pleasure of chips, cheese and gravy after a heavy one. To explore local museums and galleries. To date and make friends. To explore their sexuality. To take drugs and regret it. To learn what it is like to live with other people. Most importantly, to find themselves – to learn what makes them tick, to take risks and make mistakes, to gain a wisdom that will serve them all the days of their lives.
Instead of all this, students have been imprisoned in accommodation blocks surrounded by metal fences and patrolled by private security guards, subject to a battery of testing for COVID-19 (the symptoms of which are remarkably reminiscent of ‘freshers’ flu’), and made to carry the can in some quarters for the second national lockdown. They have been urged by the Health Secretary not to “kill their grannies” – a plea that is as morally barren as it is legally illiterate – and forced to isolate lest they spread or catch a viral illness that will almost certainly not do them any lasting damage. Many students are now suffering from the agony of mental health problems as they struggle to meet the demands of their courses against the ongoing saga of lockdown. Many more will have incurred substantial financial losses they may struggle to recover; some will be at the mercy of landlords demanding rent payments for accommodation they have been unable to occupy. And now some students are learning that they ‘appal’ their university leaders. The entire student experience has been criminalised and debased.
And for what? Students are at the lowest risk of dying of coronavirus disease. Those graduating this year will enter the most uncertain jobs market in living memory. They will become the ‘Covid generation’; graduates with asterisk degrees and well-rehearsed pleas for special dispensation. Even casual work in the service industry may still be closed to them. Likely to be denied the opportunity to travel or work overseas for the foreseeable future, they will have vanishingly few options at home and a mountain of debt to repay. And even those with a year or more still to go are likely to have vastly different university experiences from all the cohorts that preceded them. And it’ll cost them the same.
There is a lot that is “appalling” about this – and it isn’t the students.
Dr John Fanning is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool.