The government 10-year tariff on those who lie about travel remind us of the need for proportionality

I don’t intend to get into the vexed question of the efficacy of lockdowns here. There are those who object to lockdowns and other measures in principle who try to find evidence against their efficacy simply because they don’t like them. By contrast, there are those who try to soften every negative consequence of them (and there certainly are serious consequences of them) because they think they are absolutely right. Rare is the person who essentially supports them but recognises the issues with them or doesn’t support them but acknowledges the evident benefits of them.

This post isn’t really about the rights and wrongs of the government approach in general. Rather, I am interested in the message the government are sending with their most recent measure. The government have brought in mandatory quarantine for foreign travellers entering Britain from certain ‘at risk’ countries. You can have a discussion about the value of that measure if you want. Personally, I don’t think it entirely unreasonable and can see some sense in it, even if I might quibble about some of the details. What is less credible, the BBC report that the government have introduced maximum 10 year jail sentences for those who lie about their recent travel history.

I have looked at that proposal as charitably as I can and I cannot see any way to view it as anything other than draconian and over the top.

Let’s be honest, given the quarantine measure (leaving aside whether you happen to agree with it), is it right that those who defy it, and lie to avoid it, should face punitive consequences for breaking the law? Again, leaving aside whether that specific measure should be law at all, the answer must surely be ‘yes’ to that question. The question here then is one of proportionality. Is it proportionate to send someone to prison for 10 years because they lied about their country of origin to avoid quarantine in a hotel? I struggle to see how we can legitimately answer that with a ‘yes’.

Let’s just put that into perspective. Violent disorder carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. Wounding and Actual Bodily Harm have maximum sentences of 5 years each. Abandoning your children aged under 2 also carries 5 years maximum. There are a whole series of sentences for paedophilia that carry a 7 year maximum sentence. Is the government really suggesting – as Lord Sumption has rightly asked – that lying about your trip to Portugal is genuinely worse than these others crimes? That is the implicit message being set by this sentence.

If we are going to insist on implementing quarantine – and we are going to punish those who lie about where they have been – I struggle to see that jail terms are the appropriate measure here. If the policy is a 14 day stay in a hotel at the expense of the traveller – and assuming a last minute 14-day stay in a hotel in the immediate vicinity of an airport might set you back £200 per night – they would have paid £2400 for the quarantine period. A more equitable measure on those who have lied to enter the country would be a fine well in excess of the assumed cost of the quarantine. You could argue that, if a jail sentence is to be imposed, it should reflect the length of the quarantine period they were due to take with some time added to account for lying to the authorities. But a means of avoiding a jail sentence altogether would be to insist upon the quarantine period in a hotel – at their own expense – on top of the fine levied.

Ultimately, whatever the actual sentence applied, it is difficult to believe that many people could reasonably think a potential 10 year jail sentence is a proportionate response. Whilst I think the government have every right to penalise those who break the law – and there is a case to be made for saying this measure is a necessary one – they also have a duty to be proportionate in the way they apply sentencing. This is one they seem to have badly misjudged.

I am reminded, in the church, the call to proportionality matters for us too. In a recent article for Evangelicals Now, I argued that we shouldn’t reach for the nuclear button every time issues arise within our church. Instead, there should be a level of proportionality to our response.

Of course, as per 1 Corinthians 5, there will be times where we do need to jump straight to something serious. Some sin in the church is so serious and public that it must be addressed as such. But that really underlines the point. It is a question of proportionality. Sometimes serious things need to be dealt with seriously and shown to be such.

However, lots of things in the church are not ‘expel the immoral brother’ matters. They might be problems that need addressing, but they don’t necessarily need dealing with in a 1 Corinthians 5 way. Jesus called us, when we have private issues between brothers, to implement the steps in Matthew 18:15-20. In that passage, there is a progression of measures that do not all immediate equate to excommunication. Most church discipline starts and ends with brief conversations between members of the church registering their upset at somebody’s sin and the other person apologising and repenting.

But even matters that are not ‘sin issues’ so much as things in the church that are sub-optimal and need addressing. There are proportionate and helpful ways to deal with these things. There may come a time, when having tried to bring everyone with you on them, that in the end you still decide it’s important to implement whatever it is knowing that you will lose some people. But most of us recognise, doing that on every issue, every time, will soon lead to you having no church left.

Just as the government ought to think about proportionality, so the church should think carefully about proportionality too. Is this issue really one that requires that response? If not, what would be a better way?