In order to state my position as unambiguously as possible, I should make it clear that I voted against renewing the powers given to the Government by the Coronavirus Act last night. Given the rapidly improving public health picture we see – with the vaccination rollout continuing to gather pace (the Government currently on track to exceed its stated aim of vaccinating 32million people by 15 April) and the majority of areas in England recording no COVID-related deaths on at least one day in the last week – I believe it is now time for the Government to relinquish the powers it has assumed (on an avowedly temporary basis) and move towards a policy which more closely reflects the receding nature of the threat we face. That is not to say that all precautions should be abandoned, but that a six month extension of the blanket restrictions we face is constitutionally inappropriate and, in fact, compromises Parliament’s ability to exercise scrutiny on behalf of the people it represents.
Schedules 21 and 22 of the Coronavirus Act are particularly problematic. Schedule 21 gives carte blanche to the police, public health officers and immigration officials to detain “potentially infectious” people almost indefinitely and in unspecified locations – a provision which includes children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the astonishingly sweeping powers it contains, Schedule 21 currently has a 100% unlawful prosecution rate.
Schedule 22 allows the Secretary of State for Health to declare a “public health response period” and then issue directions relating to events, gatherings or premises in England – again, a hugely sweeping provision which would compromise the ability of Parliament to assess how justifiable (or not) such an order might be. It’s worth emphasising that the Secretary of State has not, thus far, exercised this power during the current lockdown (which was ordered under the Public Health Act of 1984).
To that end, I put my name to an amendment (unfortunately not selected by the Speaker) which would have removed these two schedules. And although the amendment was not selected - or, consequently, voted upon - I will continue to lobby Ministers to justify actions taken under Schedules 21 & 22 as well as continuing to press for their removal.
Although only 75 MPs joined me last night in voting against renewing the powers conferred by the Coronavirus Act, I very much hope this renewal is the last. For my part, I’ll continue to do all I can to ensure that these powers are not extended any further (either in scope or in duration) and that Parliament regains the ability to scrutinise and vote on applications of these powers on behalf of the people it represents.