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What Can the Lessons of the Pandemic Teach Us for Future Democracy? Adam Wagner

Festival of Ideas
Adam Wagner

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Adam Wagner, a leading human rights barrister and the country's preeminent expert on Covid-19 laws, talks about some of the lessons learned during the pandemic for making democracy better in the future.

On 26 March 2020, a new law appeared. In eleven pages it locked down tens of millions of people, confined us to our homes, banned socialising, closed shops, gyms, pubs, places of worship. It restricted our freedoms more than any other law in history, justified by the rapid spread of a deadly new virus. The emergency was supposed to be short but lasted for 763 days, allowing ministers to bring in, by decree, over 100 new laws restricting freedoms more than any in history – laws that were almost never debated, changed at a whim, and increasingly confused the public. Meanwhile, behind the doors of Downing Street, officials and even the Prime Minister broke the very laws they had created.

During the pandemic, Adam Wagner was a regular commentator on social media, radio, and television, and an essential voice on the legal and democratic implications of the many laws and regulations introduced. This was a period, Wagner says, when  ‘British society became as close to a police state as in living memory.’ He gave formal and informal advice to politicians, the police, and the people – all confused by what the regulations meant. His 228-tweet feed on human rights and the virus – written over one year – was essential reading. 

His book, Emergency State: How We Lost Our Freedoms in the Pandemic and Why it Matters, looks at the state that was created because of the pandemic, and what it meant for our freedoms and our democracy.

In this interview with Andrew Kelly from Bristol Ideas, Wagner looks at the lack of parliamentary oversight and debate; human rights and the law under the pandemic; trying to meet the needs for individual freedoms and collective responsibility; the decline of trust in politicians, democracy, parliament, the police, and the law that has resulted; and the long-term damage to our democracy.

Wagner puts forward better ways of planning for the next crisis, as well as long-term changes to make democracy better – including a codified constitution, bill of rights and human rights placed at the heart of decision-making in an emergency.

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Emergency State by Adam Wagner

Adam Wagner’s Emergency State: How We Lost Our Freedoms in the Pandemic and Why it Matters is published by Vintage. Buy a copy online from our partners Waterstones.

Adam Wagner

Adam Wagner is one of the UK’s leading human rights barristers and the UK’s pre-eminent expert on Covid-19 laws. He was described in the House of Lords as ‘the only person in the country who can make sense of this variety of regulations’. He practises from Doughty Street Chambers. He appears regularly on TV and radio, and during the pandemic was often called upon to interpret Covid-19 laws. He has acted in some of the key human rights cases of recent years, including for #ReclaimTheseStreets in their successful case against the Metropolitan Police relating to the vigil following the murder of Sarah Everard. He was Specialist Advisor to the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into the human rights implications of Covid-19 and is a Visiting Professor of Law at Goldsmiths University.

Image credit: Ula Soltys

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