As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths rise, most people’s attention will understandably be focused on immediate concerns; how do they keep vulnerable groups safe (if they themselves are not vulnerable); are there enough food supplies and medical equipment, and should the government be enforcing lockdowns?
Given the paramount nature of these considerations, it has been harder to spot the upcoming Emergency Coronavirus Bill – which the government expects to pass Parliament in all its stages today, and deserves serious contemplation.
It grants MPs some of the biggest powers since the end of World War II, but they will have incredibly little time to debate the 329-page document – such is the ferocity of the Coronavirus, which has greatly compromised parliamentarians’ ability to be in Westminster at all.
Of course, we are in a crisis, and most of us simply want to do “whatever it takes” (to echo Rishi Sunak’s words) to save lives and keep loved ones safe. There’s the temptation to say “let’s get this thing through” when it comes to the legislation.
But the Bill is proposing some radical changes, and is designed to last for two years – making its risks quite considerable to our way of life, hence why it needs scrutiny.
Perhaps its prime function is to give the police, public health and immigration officers more authority. Currently the police are allowed to arrest anyone who fails to comply with regulations, and courts can impose fines of up to £1,000, but they will soon be able to detain and quarantine anyone who they suspect of being infected with the Coronavirus.
Of course, these powers are designed to control those who pose a public health danger, but ultimately means we can all be taken into a “suitable location” for assssment and kept there if suspected of being infectious.
A more chilling part of the Bill focuses on crematoriums, with the aim of speeding up the disposal of dead bodies. Local authorities will be allowed to direct the ways in which these are facilitated, stored and disposed of (with the Bill adding that this should be done with “care and respect”).
Furthermore, only one doctor will be necessary to authorise a cremation – although a “medical referee” at a crematorium will have to sign off the paperwork. Up until now, two doctors have been required to sign this off; a rule created after Harold Shipman murdered around 250 patients through lethal injections.
Relaxing regulations, generally, is one of the main aims of the Bill. It will mean that recently-retired doctors and nurses can return to work; that social workers who’ve recently left can temporarily be added to registers, and that judicial commissioners can be temporarily appointed, who can authorise warrants under anti-terror laws.
This is, of course, fantastic; these people are our unsung heroes, and will be lifelines in the coming months and years ahead. But the harder question to ask is how relaxing qualifications, en masse, will affect the UK? What do temporarily appointed judicial commissioners mean for law and order?
In other words, we should not pretend this Bill is just another day in politics. We are in a completely unprecedented situation – so it’s highly likely the legislation will go through. Not least because the Government is exhausted, doesn’t have much time to play with and there are urgent priorities; finding ventilators and protecting NHS workers.
Even so, a reform this significant should not pass without questions. Fortunately, David Davis, Harriet Harman and Andrew Mitchell have already signed a cross-party amendment to put a “sunset” clause on the legislation after a year. Chris Bryant has also sought an amendment that means the legislation gets renewed every two months.
While they may come across as troublemakers – when most people want the Government response to be full-steam ahead – this is what’s needed to make this Bill palatable. With sunset clauses, regular debates and votes, it can be kept under review.
But we should not be complacent over this piece of legislation. What seems the right thing now can be the curtailment of our freedoms in years to come.