Opinion: Government’s coronavirus bill lowers standards and is ripe for abuse

In what’s been called “a drastic reimagining of state powers” by Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty (a human rights charity), the Government’s planned coronavirus bill is too broad and is ripe for abuse.

In Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, broad emergency powers are granted by the legislature – eventually leading to the formation of the Galactic Empire. Whilst Boris Johnson is unlikely to take the title of Emperor, it’s worth remembering that granting broad emergency powers should not be taken lightly.

Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) did not use his ‘emergency powers’ for good. Credit: IMDb / Lucasfilm Ltd.

The planned legislation will be time-limited for two years. It should be shorter – the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which deals with emergencies such as war and terrorism, has emergency regulations expire after 30 days, unless renewed by Parliament; when the peak of the virus is expected to hit between late May and late June of this year, it is unclear why Government should not have to apply for an extension to these unprecedented powers, and why they would still need them as far away as 2022; Parliament can always renew powers if they are needed for longer.

According to the BBC, it is likely that there will not even be a vote on the powers, instead they will be nodded through by Parliament. This means the bill will not be properly scrutinised by our elected representatives.

Giving law enforcement powers to detain and isolate people in a pandemic may sound good in theory, but there need to be clearly defined safeguards against abuse. How these safeguards can be robust to protect our civil liberties is questionable considering the lack of proper scrutiny. Martha Spurrier is right in saying that we “must not allow the hollowing out of human rights to become the go-to for the Government when it’s in a crisis.”

According to The Times and the Government:

  • Only one doctor will be required to sign death certificates, and the need for inquests to be held with a jury will be removed.
  • Furthermore, only one doctor will be needed to detain people under mental health laws, rather than the two currently required.
  • Additionally, local councils will be able to lower care standards so they can “prioritise” between residents in need, “even if this means not meeting everyone’s assessed needs in full”.
  • Also, ministers will be able to reduce teacher ratios, slash school meal standards, and reduce standards for children with special needs.
  • In addition, the government will have the ability “to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any movable structure and any offshore installation and, where necessary, to close premises”.

These changes set a dangerous precedent where oversight is thrown out of the window and standards are lowered with no proper scrutiny of the changes; lowering care standards carries the additional risk of putting vulnerable people in danger in a time where they may need additional attention.

In a crisis, it is more important than ever to make sure sweeping changes to our democracy and our society are not made under the guise of public safety.

In the words of Peter Hitchens, of the Mail on Sunday, “You should be seriously alarmed.”

Featured image: Marcin Nowak / Unsplash