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It’s high time the Coronavirus Act is replaced

It’s high time the Coronavirus Act is replaced
4 min read

One of the biggest constitutional defects in the legislation is the “yes or no” renewal vote with no ability for legislators to amend or refine it.

One year ago, with little choice and the heaviest of hearts, I supported the rapid passage of the Coronavirus Act. Now it is high time for this asymmetric, blunt and emergency instrument to be replaced in the light of experience and proper debate.

Given the already too-late first lockdown, lack of mechanisms for remote scrutiny and fears of parliamentarians becoming “super-spreaders”, the legislation was always going to be far from optimum. Those excuses no longer apply in relation both to provisions that have proved seriously disproportionate and the enormous gaps in support for ordinary people who have lost so much by way of liberties, livelihoods and even loved-ones during this time.

History may be less than kind to those (often extremely privileged), anti-lockdown libertarians who prioritised profit over people and especially our elderly. However, calls for an inevitable public inquiry later are no substitute for speaking out 'to help out' now.

One of the biggest constitutional defects in the legislation is the “yes or no” renewal vote with no ability for legislators to amend or refine it. MPs are made afraid of removing safeguards against evictions if they vote against arbitrary detention. So it is important to note that if renewal were defeated, government would still have twenty one days to return with a new revised bill before the existing law expires.

100 percent of charges brought under the Act itself have proved unlawful. This is no argument for leaving blank cheque police powers lying around on the statute book

Schedule 21 to the Act gives the broadest powers in modern history to a raft of police officers and officials to detain "potentially infectious” members of the public. Schedule 22 gives blanket but also worryingly targeted powers to Ministers to prohibit gatherings once a public health response period is declared. No declaration has been made in England.

Recent controversial policing and protest incidents seem to have been engaged with under entirely different powers. Analysis by Big Brother Watch suggests that 100 percent of charges brought under the Act itself have proved unlawful. This is no argument for leaving blank cheque police powers lying around on the statute book. By contrast, I have yet to hear of a single prosecution in relation to an unsafe building site, warehouse or call-centre where people have been required to attend by unscrupulous employers – some of which have multiplied their wealth to obscene levels as a direct consequence of the pandemic, gaining not just from online retail but from direct government financial support. Asymmetric authoritarianism strikes again.

Vulnerable and disabled people had their protections diluted. Others were left shielding without food deliveries. When schools were necessarily closed to prevent the spread of the virus, at least one in four of our children were left without internet connections, computers, pens and paper or even basic nutrition. NHS and social care workers were initially sent out to the front-line of infection, sometimes with only bin-liners for protection.

Yet the Coronavirus Act contains no powers for the emergency requisitioning of garment factories for PPE production, closed hotels for the victims of domestic abuse or sports stadia for Nightingale Schools or children’s safe play. Nor, dare I say it, does it contain a single emergency provision to temporarily suspend vaccine patents or other private health assets so that the brilliant work of British scientists and our NHS on vaccine development and roll-out programmes, might be used as the best “soft power” for the good of the world and our own health protection from virus variants going forward. 

And here lies the real rub. Covid-19 is the cruelest modern parable for community, humanity and aspiration. As so often, the politics and the legislation need to catch up.

 

Baroness Chakrabati is a Labour member of the House of Lords, former shadow attorney general and former director of Liberty.

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