The government is rushing through a wide-ranging bill that gives it enhanced powers to battle the coronavirus outbreak. This has grave implications for democratic accountability, and some are now arguing for the formation of a government of national unity.
Besides the measures that make it easier for doctors to register deaths and to allow the government to force retailers to share data on food supply, here are five details from the bill that you really ought to know about:
Police officers can make you take a test
If they have reason to suspect that you have been infected with the coronavirus, police officers and immigration officers can forcibly isolate you and compel you to take a test. Likewise, mental health workers have been given more powers to care for their patients.
Local elections are postponed until 6th May 2021
Last week it was announced that the local elections due to take place this year would be postponed until 6th May 2021. This bill basically puts that announcement into law, but also includes a provision that allows the government to postpone any other elections or referenda — for example, any by-elections that might come about were an MP to die.
The Snoopers’ Charter has been beefed up
The Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 — commonly known as the Snoopers’ Charter — dramatically enhanced the government’s ability to access people’s personal data. But, enshrined in the law, there were measures to prevent the powers being used for authoritarian purposes.
Former and practising judges, known as “Judicial Commissioners”, had to approve individual requests by ministers to launch investigations. The Coronavirus Bill expedites the process of appointing Judicial Commissioners.
Ministers can close the borders more easily
If ministers decide that there are not enough staff to continue operating ports of arrival (which encompass everything from actual ports to airports to international train stations), then they can instruct the operators of these ports to close the borders.
Given that almost every other country in the world is tightening its borders at the moment, it is surely only a matter of time before the UK goes the same way.
The government will have these enhanced powers for two years
The most controversial aspect of the bill is the length of its application. The bill automatically expires after two years. But some MPs have said that this is too long.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda and the author of a number of books on the workings of parliament, has expressed anxiety about the bill, and suggested it should contain a clause that requires monthly parliamentary approval for its renewal. As it stands, a minister can suspend and revive certain parts of the bill at will.