Thursday 1 October 2020

The Coronavirus Act 2020 continues


A Guardian headline of 29 September 2020 stated - "The Coronavirus Act is an attack on our liberties. MPs must seize this chance to scrap it." The author, Martha Sprurrier, (Barrister and Director of Liberty) wrote -

"As for democratic process, this Act has done untold damage. Its very existence normalises the concentration of extraordinary power in the hands of the government and the police. It sends a signal to authoritarian regimes the world over – when people think extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, take full advantage. This week’s vote could not have more riding on it."

There is no doubt that some provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 give rise to major libertarian concerns. A notable example is Schedule 21 - Powers relating to potentially infectious persons. (For more detail on Schedule 21 see this previous post of 2 April 2020).

The Coronavirus Bill

(as introduced to the House of Commons on Thursday 19 March) contained 87 clauses and 27 Schedules.  The government produced the Bill with remarkable speed and it was taken through its parliamentary stages very quickly. Royal Assent was given on Wednesday 25 March. The Act itself contains 102 sections and 29 Schedules.

The Act is expressly limited to two years (i.e. to March 2022) - section 89 - but that is subject to exceptions set out in section 89 and also to section 90 which enables a "relevant national authority" to make regulations setting a later expiry date for any provision of the Act.

The Act contains provisions for review by the House of Commons - section 98. The first such review was held on 30 September and the House voted 330 to 24 to keep the Act in force.

It has to be noted that section 98 requires a narrow vote on a motion "That the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire." The House of Commons timetable permitted a mere 90 minutes of debate on this important matter. The Speaker (Sir Lindsay Hoyle) placed on record  his view about this and a further point of order by Mr Chris Bryant MP is worth noting.

During the debate, the Minister (Mr Hancock MP) said - "I turn to a measure that we will not be renewing. I have said that we will keep measures in place only for as long as is necessary, and I can tell the House that in one area we will revoke a power that was part of the original Act. When creating the Act, we included provisions to modify mental health legislation to reduce from two to one the number of doctors’ opinions needed to detain someone under the Mental Health Act 1983 and to extend legal time limits on the detention of mental health patients. These were always powers of last resort, and I was not persuaded, even in the peak, that they were necessary, because our mental health services have shown incredible resilience and ingenuity. I have therefore decided that these powers are no longer required in England and will not remain part of the Act. We will shortly bring forward the necessary secondary legislation to sunset these provisions.​"

For details of Statutory Instruments made using the Coronavirus Act 2020 and other Acts see Hansard Society Coronavirus Dashboard 

1 October 2020

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