I HAVE often wondered what it would be like to live in a police state. Well, now I know.

What we are all experiencing right now is very similar to house arrest: Only leaving home for exercise once a day. Only shopping for necessities. No gatherings of more than two people No travelling beyond walking distance of home.

These are exactly the kind of conditions placed on political dissidents in authoritarian countries. Of course, Britain is not – whatever people say on Twitter – an authoritarian country, let alone a police state. We are still a fully functioning democracy where the police are subject to the rule of law.

But the former High Court Judge, Lord Sumption, was right to warn that we are in danger of allowing the police to boss us around unnecessarily and that we need to keep a close eye on them. Some forces in England have clearly pushed the envelope by droning hikers, searching shopping bags and telling Stephen Kinnock MP that he can’t visit his dad on his birthday, even at a social distance.

There are claims from black liberty organisations like NetPol that police are using the new powers to victimise people of colour. But even Lord Sumption accepts that most have been behaving sensibly. Britain’s police are generally pretty well behaved – as anyone who spends time in countries like France can testify.

He is right to say we have a “citizens’ police” in the UK, not an arm of the state. That may seem a fine distinction, but it is an important one. There are actually no laws in force restricting movement. The police are acting on recommendations and should allow for people to exercise common sense.

So, I did exactly that and drove to Glencoe the other day to see how the lockdown is being handled across rural Scotland. And before you ask, journalists are classed as essential workers when covering the coronavirus crisis. Also I didn’t leave the vehicle or use local facilities.

Chance would’ve been a fine thing. Outside towns and villages there are very few places to stop except emergency lay-bys. Throughout Stirling, the Trossachs and Argyll, gathering places and car parks have been blockaded with barriers and signs. Some minor roads have been closed altogether.

There are police around, but no roadblocks. No one stopped me to ask what I was doing. But there was really no need. I saw no sign of people ignoring Government guidelines about not gathering in beauty spots. In fact, there was precious little sign of any people at all.

This absence of humanity was slightly chilling – like a dystopian disaster movie. The weather right now is painfully beautiful and the Highlands have never looked more inviting. But people are staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives – just as the road sign gantries tell us.

But the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and we need people like Lord Sumption and the SNP’s indefatigable Jo Cherry to keep a close watch on what how the state is handling this crisis. As the retired judge says, history tells us that the extinction of liberty invariably follows public demands for protection against an enemy, real or imagined.

It isn’t surprising that authoritarian states are imposing these restrictions with particular relish. The Hungarian hard man, Viktor Orban, has introduced the most draconian measures yet in a nominally democratic country with his state of emergency.

That means rule by decree and shelving elections. Journalists who spread “fake news”, which could be anything uncongenial the the administration, can be punished by five years in prison. Just don’t think of leaving quarantine.

Well it’s all worth it isn’t it, if it saves lives. This is always the justification for oppressive measures. There was no shortage of people on social media last week who would have been happy to see them introduced here.

Indeed, after years condemning Boris Johnson as a fascist, Labour supporters were accusing him of not being fascist enough because he had dragged his feet about the lockdown introduced by President Macron in France two weeks ago. John Ashworth, the Shadow Health Secretary, led demands for draconian restrictions.

It was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who said after Boris Johnson made his belated announcement on social distancing that “as far as I am concerned these are instructions and these are rules that we should all obey to stop people dying”. Actually, they are only guidelines.

As Lord Sumption says, governments that adopt oppressive powers rarely give them up. The British Government passed an Emergency Powers Act in 1920 which gives ministers the right to make laws without parliamentary approval. It still exists in the form of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, for use only in “catastrophic emergencies”.

Parliament has just passed the Coronavirus Act 2020 reinforcing powers to detain people if they refuse quarantine or medical examination, or if they insist on working. It is a ragbag of potentially oppressive measures, allowing police and immigration officials, for example, to close the borders and making it easier for police to snoop on our communications. These measures are reviewed every 21 days and expire after six months. We hope.

The danger is that, after this episode, we may become hyper-cautious about medical emergencies. After all, normal flu killed 28,000 people in the UK in 2014/15, and most of us where completely unaware of it, preoccupied as we were with the aftermath of the independence referendum.

Coronavirus is more serious than flu for a number of reasons, and more deadly because of the strain it places on the health service. But you don’t have to be a social Darwinist to agree with Lord Sumption that we need to keep a sense of proportion.

Only a few weeks ago, politicians and civil servants in Britain and America believed that our societies would not tolerate the authoritarian restrictions and quarantine measures deployed in China. Now, everyone is adapting to home imprisonment.

In the near future, we may have coronavirus stop and search, with antibody identity cards and phone tracking. This is what is being called the bio-surveillance state – and we need to be wary of it. This war will be won, but it must not be at the cost of our freedoms.

Read more: This crisis could bring a Great Depression, not socialism