Credit: Maksim Chernyshev / Scop.io

Opposition’s new Covid idea: The busybody hotline

Nice society we’re building for ourselves here, eh? Credit to Ciara Phelan at the Mirror for being the recipient of this scoop:

Two opposition parties have said they are in favour of a phone line being set up for members of the public to report pubs and restaurants that are not Covid-19 compliant….

….Now both the Social Democrats and People Before Profit have said they would like to see a phone line set up for people to report premises that are flouting the rules.

Co-leader of the Social Democrats Catherine Murphy said she would support and be in favour of a phone line being set up.

She told the Irish Mirror: “I think that’s only fair to the ones that are complying.

“The Health and Safety Authority has a limited number of staff and essentially I think they’ve got to deploy them appropriately.

“A helpline was one of the things that was looked for and I think where people can ring and say ‘look I wasn’t checked’ so that you’re after going after the places that are non-compliant rather than going after the places that are fully complying.

There are, as ever, practical and principled reasons why this is one of the stupider ideas to have been floated since the pandemic began. Let’s start with the practical:

In the weeks after it was established, it is a racing certainty that any such hotline would be flooded by fake, vexatious, and prank calls. People would have many reasons to make such calls, of course: Some number would be doing it to protest what they (rightly, but we’ll get to that in a moment) see as a form of totalitarianism. Others would simply be airing old grudges, to subject a rival or a family member to an investigation. Others would be doing so for the sheer fun of it. The end result would be to have whatever henchmen the state have to enforce their policy flooded with reports, some true, some false.

It’s also not abundantly clear that failing to ask for a covid cert is…. actually a crime. In fact, not only is it not abundantly clear at all – it is actively unclear.

The case for the defence is that the Government’s guidelines for hospitality make clear that customers are required to have proof of immunity if they want to eat indoors. But that is a duty that falls on the customer, not the owner of the venue. Try as you might, if you read those guidelines, you will find no line saying that businesses are “required” to check for a certificate. It simply says that they “should” – which is a very important distinction. Look at this phrasing, for example, and note the words highlighted (by me):

There must be a defined, managed and supervised entrance point within the premises where employees can verify eligibility for entry to the indoor seating area before a customer enters a queue for the food counter service.

It is important that businesses should check photo ID when checking Proof of Immunity. There are some limited circumstances when this may not be necessary e.g. where a person is well-known to the business. Unaccompanied minors are required to present Proof of Immunity.

If you are told that you “must” or “shall” do something, that generally means that you are legally required to do so. So, in this case, there “must” be an area where employees “can” check for immunity. But note the word “can” – the requirement is to have an area, not to actually check anything. Similarly, note the “should” when it comes to checking photo ID, and how it differs from the responsibility on minors who are “required” to present it. It’s very clear, the duty is on the person attending to present a Covid Cert if asked. There is nothing in the guidelines which actually requires a business to ask.

In these circumstances, what would callers to the busybody hotline be reporting, exactly? Somebody not doing what they “should” is not a crime.

That said, there is a case for prosecution, too: A very well qualified legal friend suspects that an amendment (Statutory Instrument 367/2021) to the Government’s Covid Regulation Act, (Statutory Instrument 352/2020) may have made it an offence not to check for a Covid cert – though the language there is, again, unclear, requiring event organisers to “take all reasonable steps” to ensure that an attending person is vaccinated. Does checking for a vaccine cert fall under “all reasonable steps”? Probably, but people might differ on that. There’s also this:

Again, note “may” be stated. If you’re a business owner, good luck figuring it out. Either way, the lawyers will have a good day out. The maximum fine, incidentally, for a class C offence, is €2,500. So even if you are convicted of a crime, the fine is manageable.

But even putting all that to one side, this proposal remains abhorrent.

Covid started, we might all remember, as a grand unifying moment for our society, when people would come together as a country and accomplish a great national victory against a common enemy. 20 months on, and we’re now reduced to having politicians urging citizens to root out a fifth column that threatens the national struggle. This is generally, it should be noted, the kind of thing that happens in societies that are losing wars, rather than societies that are winning them.

What’s more: It is the duty of the police, and the state, to enforce the law. The state already has a hotline for those who suspect the law is being broken: You dial up your local garda station, or, in an emergency, 999. You can file a complaint in a Garda station if you believe a crime is being actively committed.

The purpose of this proposal, were it enacted, is, by design, to harass and intimidate people who may, or may not (as we have outlined above) be either breaking the law, or interpreting it relatively reasonably. It is designed to use the power of the mob to make life difficult for people who may well have committed no crime. It is, to be frank, outright totalitarianism: Behave, or we will tell Big Brother.

It is worth repeating here that over 90% of Irish adults are vaccinated. That means that in any venue, even where certs are not checked, chances are that over 90% of those attending are vaccinated. There is also little to no evidence that the unvaccinated are disproportionately spreading Covid 19. They may be disproportionately affected by it, but there is no evidence that they are disproportionately spreading it.

What we are seeing here is a state that has completely failed to contain the virus, and politicians who, having no other options left, have fallen back on a trope as old as human history: The witch hunt. In the middle ages, in times of plague, it was not uncommon for cats to be blamed, and slaughtered, or Jews to be blamed, and persecuted, or witches to be blamed, and hunted. Today, we’re seeing the same hysterical dynamic. But this time, it’s people who don’t check Covid Certs.

The madness has to end.

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