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There are some people in our community who believe that being asked to register their name, address and telephone number when entering a pub or restaurant during the current COVID 19 pandemic is an infringement of their privacy or worse still, an international plot to rob them of their civil liberties. The government’s explanation that it is a way of contacting them if it is shown that they have been in the presence of someone tested positive for the coronavirus falls on deaf ears.

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Older people may remember that we have experienced compulsory national registration before, thanks to the National Registration Act 1939 (2 & 3 Geo. VI c. 91). On the 29th September 1939, just a month after the start of the 2nd World War, every man, woman and child in the UK was obliged to complete and then carry at all times an identity (ID) card. They had to be produced on-demand or presented to a police station within 48 hours. The cards carried the following information: -

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  • Name
  • Age, given as the actual date of birth.
  • Occupation, profession, trade or employment. The Register had also collected information on the role of persons in institutions, indicated by the initial letter of the terms Officer, Visitor, Servant, Patient, or Inmate.
  • Address
  • Marital status
  • Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.

The main reasons given for the introduction of the identity cards were:

  1. The major dislocation of the population caused by mobilisation and mass evacuation following air raids. Identification was necessary if families were separated from one another or their house was bombed, or if people were injured or killed.
  2. The wartime need for manpower control and planning in order to maximise the efficiency of the war economy.
  3. The likelihood of rationing (introduced from January 1940 onwards).
  4. Population statistics. As the last census had been held in 1931, there was little accurate data on which to base vital planning decisions. The National Register was in fact an instant census and resembles the Census Act 1920 in many ways.

65,000 enumerators across the country delivered ID forms ahead of the chosen day. On Friday 29 September 1939, householders were required to record details on the registration forms. On the following Sunday and Monday, the enumerators visited every householder, checked the form and then issued a completed identity card for each of the residents. All cards at this time were the same brown/buff colour. Some 45 million identity cards were issued.

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Just like today, there were people around then who objected to the compulsory carrying and producing of identity cards, the most famous of whom was Clarence Harry Willcock, a British Liberal activist. On 7 December 1950, Willcock was stopped for speeding on Ballard’s Lane, North Finchley, London. Police Constable Harold Muckle asked him to produce his card. Willcock refused, reportedly saying “I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing”. Muckle gave Willcock a form to produce his card at any police station within two days, to which Willcock replied: “I will not produce it at any police station and I will not accept the form”. He then threw the form on the ground. Willcock was prosecuted under the Act. In court, Willcock argued that the obligation to produce the card had lapsed when the war ended in 1945. The justices rejected this but gave him an absolute discharge. However, Willcock was fined 30 shillings for speeding!

The National Registration Act of 1939 was repealed on 22 May 1952 although the National Registration numbers were retained and used by the National Health Service, by Electoral Services for voter registration, and for National Insurance. All the information gathered for the ID cards during the 2nd World War is now stored in The National Archives and is only accessible subject to privacy restrictions.

People may worry about being asked to register because of the COVID pandemic without realising that there is already a vast amount of their personal data being held, some in government and national records like National Insurance and HM Revenue and Customs, the Department of Transport and the NHS, more in the records in the companies running our bank and insurance accounts, mobile telephones and internet and yet more wafting around in dark places we’ve never heard of. The big unanswered question of course is - is this risky or reassuring? I know that I have made my decision.

– from Martyn Day