Will the government ever give back its emergency powers?

The bill was rushed through and has some worrying features.

On Monday evening, MPs approved the Coronavirus Bill. The legislation will give sweeping powers to the UK government in a bid to restrict further spread of the virus and reduce deaths. The bill was passed despite concern about civil liberties and the legislation’s potential impact on society’s most vulnerable.

Notably, the Bill would bring about greater police powers to detain people suspected of having Covid-19 by enforcing individuals to provide biological samples and disclose their travel history. Police can then impose forced detention and isolation until a public health officer can be consulted.

The legislation would also formally give the government the ability to postpone elections and simultaneously restrict public events and gatherings. Protest groups have raised concern that this will impact the right to democratic protest against extreme measures and any subsequent government policies in the future.

In a bid to prioritise resources, the proposed measures would also enable the reduction of doctors required to sign off on sectioning those with mental health issues from two to one. Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth also raised concern that measures would give councils the power to “downgrade” care for the disabled and the elderly [to prioritise coronavirus response] and that this should be subject to a review by the Equalities and Human Rights commission.

There was cross party consensus that such actions were a necessity given the extreme circumstances. Despite this, there was also apprehension that the measures may subsequently have an impact on human rights if they were not subject to consistent review and limited to an appropriate timeline.

The proposed emergency legislation was initially set to be in place for 2 years, bowing to pressure from Labour, it has now been confirmed that the powers would be subject to review every 6 months.

The amendment was welcomed but concern persisted from both sides of the political spectrum. Former Brexit secretary, David Davis suggested the powers highlighted within the Bill would give the government undue strengths which would infringe on civil liberties. 

“It is guaranteed, bluntly, that it will have mistakes and unnecessary elements to it. Those mistakes will all be in one direction and that’s giving more power to the Government than is necessary”.

Davis went on to suggest that due to the particular type of legislation, there would be “no scope to amend it”. He also questioned the limited time in which the Bill was put together and the time in which MPs have had to scrutinise the 300-page proposal.

Acting leader of the Lib Dems, Ed Davey echoed Davis’ concern, suggesting that “handing over such far reaching powers to Boris Johnson is not in the public’s interest”. The Lib Dems had also proposed a 3-month limit to the emergency powers and that any extension must be approved by MPs.

Despite Davey’s notable suggestion, the overwhelming, parliamentary majority held by the Conservatives would leave any vote on the measures very much in their hands.

Harriet Harman, Labour MP and chair of the human rights committee also emphasised the necessity for scrutiny, suggesting that “checks and balances [must be] in place to ensure human rights are not disregarded”.

Given the unprecedented situation Johnson and the UK are faced with, the imposing of greater authority appears necessary to quelle the spread of the coronavirus and reduce the rate of mortality. Despite this, the call to ensure that civil liberties are maintained and the vulnerable are cared for must prevail if we are to ensure governmental accountability and the restriction of draconian measures to their minimal necessity. 

Jamie Beauvais is a writer on topics including societal improvement and wealth disparity.

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