Parliament has to ensure the coronavirus emergency laws do not become permanent via the back door

As soon as the crisis has passed, MPs should get the chance to debate fully which, if any, of the emergency measures are still needed

Andrew Grice
Monday 23 March 2020 16:08 GMT
Doctor explains how one person with coronavirus can infect 59,000 others

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The government is rushing legislation through the Commons today giving ministers sweeping emergency powers to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

After controversy over how long the provisions should last, the broad cross-party consensus on handling the crisis has just about held. The government originally wanted the measures in the emergency coronavirus bill to last for two years, to allow it to keep using the provisions if the UK suffered a second wave of the disease next autumn or winter, a chilling but realistic prospect.

But after a polite cross-party rebellion involving senior MPs such as David Davis, Andrew Mitchell and Harriet Harman, Downing Street has rightly conceded that MPs will need to renew the powers every six months, the “sunset clause” proposed by Jeremy Corbyn. It is a good thing that the opposition and backbench MPs can still influence the government’s actions, and a strong argument against shutting down parliament. The main chamber should continue to sit even if sessions of committees and the mini-chamber in Westminster Hall are suspended.

In an ideal world, the Commons would get longer than a few hours so it could debate properly a tome running to 329 pages. More time would allow MPs to question whether all the new powers were strictly necessary, since some of them are almost certainly allowed under existing civil contingencies legislation. But clearly, we are not in an ideal world.

Some of the bill’s provisions are uncontroversial. For example, allowing people to claim statutory sick pay after one day rather than four; ensuring police can enforce quarantine and social distancing measures; forcing schools and nurseries to close (a technicality); enabling volunteers to take four weeks off work and retired health and social care workers to return and for local authorities to direct burials.

Yet some provisions are controversial. Permitting one doctor rather than two to detain someone under mental health legislation is designed to cope with any severe shortage of doctors. But if it becomes the norm to save time, rather than being used a genuine emergency, that would be worrying. We probably wouldn’t find out.

Similarly, the bill will relax the duty on councils under the 2014 Care Act to provide social care so they can, according to the government, “ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met, even if this means not meeting everyone’s assessed needs in full or delaying some assessments.” The care system was creaking even before we had heard of the word “coronavirus”. It is the unloved, very poor relation of our much-loved NHS, often mentioned by politicians as an after-thought. The pressures on those providing care in people’s own homes or in care homes have become even more acute in this crisis, not least through staff being off work.

But I fear that the blanket provision in the bill might provide an unintended incentive to cut corners and reduce the standard of care, rather than strive to somehow keep the show on the road.

As we might expect in legislation drafted so quickly, there appear to be some omissions. Some migrants whose visas mean they cannot rely on public funds might face an agonising choice between going to work or having no money to feed their families if they feel ill. The government seems strangely unaware of this problem.

Liberty, the human rights organisation, is worried that the bill has “some significant gaps”. It wants ministers to suspend the “hostile environment” policy towards migrants by ending NHS charging and data-sharing between the NHS and the immigration service. “Both measures prevent migrants from accessing healthcare, putting not only their health at risk but possibly heightening risks to public health in the middle of a pandemic,” Liberty warned.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman has insisted that the powers are “temporary, proportionate and will be used only when strictly necessary”. He added: “We recognise the importance of parliamentary scrutiny.”

MPs must hold Johnson to that. As soon as the crisis has passed, they should get the chance to debate fully which, if any, of the emergency measures are still needed. MPs must go through the bill line-by-line and remove the unnecessary provisions from the statute book so there is no danger of the temporary becoming permanent via the back door.

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