Thursday 26 March 2020 12:04 am

Debate: Are the emergency powers granted to the government in the Coronavirus Bill too long-lasting?

Silkie Carlo is director of Big Brother Watch, an independent non-profit organisation leading the protection of privacy and civil liberties in the UK.
Eliot Wilson
Eliot Wilson is head of research at Right Angles and a former House of Commons official.

Yesterday, the Lords passed the Coronavirus Bill, which gives the government never-before-seen powers in a bid to halt the outbreak. However, they will only be reviewed every six months. City A.M. asks whether this is too long-lasting.

Read more: Coronavirus: Off-licences added to list of essential retailers

Yes, says Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch

Emergency powers are needed – but with an emergency time frame.

Following our campaign, government agreed to a debate every six months rather than two years of the Coronavirus Bill without review.

That’s a welcome change, because the Bill contains the most draconian powers ever in peace-time Britain: sweeping powers to detain, quarantine and test members of the public, even children, in unknown isolation facilities, and even to thwart protests.

Government needs robust powers to protect public health for as long as necessary. However, had it used the Civil Contingencies Act, parliament would have reviewed these emergency powers, and their unintended consequences, monthly.

The democratic lifeblood of our country would still be running. But under this Bill, we’re operating on trust.

The shadow health secretary made a commitment in the Commons: “I will never rest until the day we get rid of this Bill”. Hear hear. It’s critical that we protect public health as well as our democratic norms.

Read more: The Coronavirus Bill: Everything you need to know

No, says Eliot Wilson, head of research at Right Angles

“Keep calm and carry on.” That’s become the British mantra. How we love to say it and congratulate ourselves on our phlegmatism. Then along comes Covid-19.

Let’s be clear. This emergency is the biggest public health crisis the world has seen since at least the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. To respond to this global challenge, let alone overcome it, requires unprecedented action by government to act in people’s best interests, because people are demonstrably not going to do it themselves.

The Coronavirus Bill as first published set out sweeping emergency powers which the authorities would assume for a period of two years. A backlash forced the government to rethink and promise only six months before review.

But how do we know how long it will take? It’s unfashionable, but this is a time to trust our political leaders. They aren’t nascent fascists, they need the tools to do the epidemiological job. Let’s give them some credit and allow them to tackle this pandemic. We won’t stop watching.


Silkie Carlo is director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. Eliot Wilson is head of research at PR firm Right Angles.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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