The purpose of the Emergency Coronavirus Bill is to protect the economy and the government, not public health

By Angela Craig

The Coronavirus Bill has had little public political discussion. It is being rushed through parliament today (23rd March). Its provisions reflect the scale of the impact of Covid-19: an impact which will be all the greater the longer the lessons of countries which have contained the virus are not learned (particularly China). Instead of containing the virus government’s lack of appropriate action is allowing it to spread.

The Coronavirus Bill is not being introduced alongside mass testing, contact tracing, provision of adequate protective clothing to the general public and front line workers, enforcement of social distancing, etc. Rather its aim is to mitigate the impact of the virus, particularly on the economy. As the overview to the Bill states:

‘The purpose of the Coronavirus Bill is to enable the Government to respond to an emergency situation and manage the effects of a covid-19 pandemic. A severe pandemic could infect up to 80% of the population leading to a reduced workforce, increased pressure on health services and death management processes. The Bill contains temporary measures designed to either amend existing legislative provisions or introduce new statutory powers which are designed to mitigate these impacts.’

The Bill contains some elements which are necessary, such as measures to allow re-recruitment of retired or temporary health care workers, the extension of rights to statutory sick pay and ensuring pensions will not be negatively impacted for those who return to work and so on.

But it also includes a number of provisions that will impact on some of those already most discriminated against and strengthens the powers of police and authorities, without adequate oversight.

Disabled people would have much lowered rights to social care as a result of the proposals: the duty on local authorities to provide social care would be removed unless it could be proven that there was a breach of human rights, a very high threshold.

One doctor instead of two could detain a person under the Mental Health Act. Emergency detention of people already in hospital will be extended. The cap how long a person can be held in a mental hospital awaiting a report will be lifted: it is currently 12 weeks but this would introduce indefinite detention.

Many different powers are introduced for the ‘death management process’. A doctor who has not seen or examined the deceased will be able to state the cause of death without referral to a coroner. 

The Bill would confer a power on police and immigration officers ‘to direct individuals to attend, remove [a potentially infected person] to, or keep them at suitable locations for screening and assessment’. These are wide-ranging increases in the powers of police to arrest, search and detain.

These powers and cuts will threaten some of those already most discriminated against: disabled people, carers, older people, those with emotional and psychiatric conditions, homeless people. They should be amended in the debate in parliament: Labour should not simply pass all these measures.

At the very least this Bill – some provisions of which introduce powers way beyond a public health response to Covid-19 – should be subject to greater oversight. If passed (as looks likely) the Act is set to expire after 2 years. However, the Bill also includes powers for certain measures in the Bill to be ‘revived if needed again’. Such extension of sections of the Bill would require only a ‘regulation made by a Minister’. So, this expiry is not ensured. If passed into legislation, these provisions need to be subject to the tightest possibly oversight and scrutiny.

Boris Johnson’s bravado about ‘turning the tide’ on the coronavirus crisis in 12 weeks is false.  But it surely highlights the fact that the government is over-reaching with sweeping powers that it originally sought for at least two years, but is now proposing will be reviewed in six months.

It must be remembered that previous legislation passed in the heat of crisis has stayed on the statute book much longer than suggested when the legislation was proposed. The authoritarian Defence of the Realm Act in the World War I was used not just to repress the population during the War but to wage war on the Irish population until 1921, when it was replaced with other legislation. Repressive powers introduced in World War II remained in force for many years after the war.  The notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act was renewed annually, but this was a rubber-stamping exercise, and the few Labour left MPs who honourably opposed it for terrorising the Irish community were branded supporters of terrorism.

There should no blank cheque for draconian powers for any British government – certainly not this one.