Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.
The contentious Coronavirus Act, a 348-page document, was rushed through Parliament on a three-day emergency timetable before the March 2020 lockdown on the understanding that the Act would be reviewed and scrutinised once the emergency had passed.
Eighteen months later and we are still living under the authoritarian strictures of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (‘the Act’) with its erosion of basic freedoms which previous generations sacrificed so much to achieve.
When outlining the final step of the lockdown roadmap the Prime Minister asked: “if not now, then when?”. The same can be asked of the Coronavirus Act.
It is reminiscent of the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914. This was used to censor the press, introduce rationing, ban kite flying and building bonfires, brought in British Summer Time, watered down beer, and imposed pub licensing laws – rules which were only relaxed in November 2005.
When Parliament returns after the Conference recess there will be a vote to extend the Act. Some Conservative backbenchers are concerned that the emergency Covid laws could remain on the statute books for another two years after the Government announced a six-month extension. The Act must be extended every six months by a vote in Parliament to remain in force.
People seldom realise when their freedoms are being eroded until these freedoms have gone. This extension of state power is unprecedented outside wartime conditions and it is remarkable that there has not been a wider public debate about the loss of basic rights outside the noisy echo chamber of social media platforms such as Twitter. It is unfortunate that those of us who are deeply worried about the implications of the Act are being caricatured as bug-eyed zealots, and are thrown together with conspiracy theorists and the flat earth society.
The Act gave council-employed “Covid marshals” the right to use “reasonable force” to make people self-isolate (the equivalent of giving parking wardens the right to stop, search and arrest motorists for minor traffic offences). Citizens were fined for not observing NHS test-and-trace edicts or for refusing to stay at home after testing positive. Curtain-twitchers were encouraged to denounce their neighbours for taking more than one daily walk, and where I live a group of people waiting outside the post office were accused by the police of an illegal gathering. People were threatened with fines which started at £4,000 for not obeying self-isolation rules.
The Act by itself was not sufficient to curtail freedom of movement, and the Government had to disinter the Public Health Act of 1984 to justify lockdowns. The 1984 Act permits a regulatory regime ‘for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public-health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination’. This Act was created for a very different era when television advertisements featured tombstones warning the LGBT community that they were in grave danger of HIV/AIDS transmission.
Lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs, led by Steve Baker and Mark Harper, have rightly been calling for a new “Public Health Act” to allow greater examination over health measures.
We are in a completely different position from where we were in March 2020. Our vaccine rollout has been a huge success. We have seen a significant and sustained fall in people suffering from serious disease and death from Covid. This week Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, conceded Covid may no longer be the most ‘significant’ threat to health and Dame Professor Sarah Gilbert, who pioneered the Oxford vaccine, has poured cold water over fears of a vaccine evading variant stating there “aren’t very many places for the virus to go”.
Instead of reporting the number of people who have died with Covid, the BBC should be telling us about the number of patients who are not being seen by GPs or given treatment for other acute illnesses as the NHS continues to hide behind the pandemic.
In September, Government scientists warned England’s daily hospital admissions could reach 2,000 to 7,000 this month if restrictions weren’t tightened. At the time of writing, there are just over 7,000 Covid patients in hospital in the whole of the UK. Public health restrictions in England are now much more contested than in March 2020 when there was almost universal consensus that lockdown and other measures were necessary.
Senior clinicians are not aligned with the fear agenda of the doomsayers on SAGE, illustrated by the lack of agreement of the efficacy of vaccines for 12-5-years-olds. Time after time SAGE’s epidemiological modelling of the pandemic has turned out to be as accurate as the prognostications and crystal ball gazing of Mystic Meg.
This change in circumstances has been acknowledged by Government, which has pledged to remove some provisions of the Coronavirus Act such as the power to temporarily close schools and other educational institutions, prohibit gatherings or events, and restrict access to premises.
The other temporary powers in the Act should expire in March 2022, and Government has stated that it will review them in the Spring. We must continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that the residual powers accrued to the state by the Act are removed so that all our freedoms and liberties are fully restored.
Renewing the Coronavirus Act now would suggest that the Government has lost confidence in its vaccination programme and that citizens could be subjected to an indefinite cycle of restrictions and lockdowns which challenge many of our most cherished beliefs about the limits of government power. The Government relied on the consent and compliance of the general public to introduce some of the most swingeing controls in peace time and it is by no means certain that the people will accept a narrative of continuous emergency.
The silent majority now wants a return to pre-pandemic normality and will not be fooled by increasingly desperate attempts by the Government to persuade us that restricting freedom is necessary.