As Britain continues to ramp up its response to the coronavirus outbreak, MPs have voted through a bill that gives the government new powers to tackle the crisis.
The Coronavirus Bill, expected to become law this week, has the potential to bring in sweeping changes to our daily lives in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
With the country now already effectively in lockdown, the bill formalises the government’s power to enforce many measures that have already come into place, such as closing non-essential shops.
However, it also goes further than that, and has prompted criticism from human rights groups, who say that the government is putting citizens’ freedoms at risk in the long run.
Here is what it includes, and what the broader ramifications of such a bill could be.
Police will be able to force suspected Covid-19 sufferers — people who are “potentially infectious” — to take a test for the illness. If they refuse, they could face arrest and a £1,000 fine.
Meanwhile, supermarkets will be forced to disclose any disruption to the food supply, and environment secretary George Eustace will have the power to get information “from persons within, or closely connected to, a food supply chain” if he thinks there is a disruption risk.
Non-essential shops and restaurants across the country have already shut down, but the bill also gives the government the formal power to enforce this.
It means that event spaces and business premises can be closed by authorities, even if owners have thus far tried to keep them open.
Officials will also be able to delay elections, as has already been done voluntarily with the London mayoral election, initially planned for this year.
International travel — which has already virtually ground to a halt — could also be curbed by force, with officials able to close ports, airports or international rail terminals if they show it is impossible to police them because of staffing shortages, or if they are helping spread the virus.
Initially, this suspension can only last six hours, before being extended by 12- hour intervals. At each point, the government must demonstrate that the situation would be dangerous if the port is reopened.
Coronavirus sick pay
The bill also confirms that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) can be received from the first day of illness or self isolation, as well as giving employers the ability to claw back the first two weeks of this pay from the government.
It also loosens the law surrounding it, meaning ministers will be able to quickly change how people become eligible for SSP. The government says this is so they have the “flexibility” to alter the rules in line with advice from public health experts, as more information emerges.
Deaths and mortuaries
The process for signing death certificates will be relaxed so that fewer medical practitioners are needed to register someone as deceased.
Easing the bureaucracy around deaths is part of the process of giving doctors and nurses more time to deal with patients in hospitals.
Meanwhile, local authorities will be given powers to create temporary mortuaries, while the government will be able to step in to force companies to provide their facilities if they could help with the storage, burial or cremation of the deceased. This would likely be mainly targeted at private funeral homes and crematoria.
What are the long term ramifications?
Such sweeping changes to legal powers in such a short space of time will clearly have a profound effect on how life works for the immediate future.
Some people have welcomed the powers, while others have pointed out the two-year lifespan — with a review every six months — means they could last beyond the end of the pandemic.
The legislation “will change the way we function as a society in the immediate and potentially much longer term,” says Suzanne Rab, a barrister at Serle Court Chambers:
“The measures that were introduced yesterday may not seem as draconian when compared with some other countries, but those in the Bill provide for even more stringent interventions and enforcement. The new powers could also be switched off and on in light of medical advice.
“Some measures are clearly understandable in the current situation — such as greater powers of detention, removal of the right to mass assembly and greater flexibility for the health and social care system when prioritising cases.
“Some of these measures make sense in the current environment but there is pressure from MPs for parliament to set sunset clauses rather than leave the end point to ministers to decide.”
Coronavirus bill lasts for ‘far too long’
However, some are concerned that the government has not used the Civil Contingencies Act — a law designed for exactly this purpose — to bring in the powers, and instead put together a whole new bill.
Under the CCA, emergency regulations have to be reviewed by parliament within seven days and they expire after 30.
The coronavirus bill lasts for two years, and will be reviewed by MPs every six months, a timeframe which is “far too long for such extreme powers,” says Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.
“We have emergency laws that come packaged with the appropriate safeguards. Instead the government has gone for a full bill that lasts two years, which means we are quite likely to see some of these powers in place for a long time,” she says.
“All of the powers combined have pretty much overnight incurred the greatest loss of liberty that we have ever had in this country. There is, of course, a good reason for this — we just have to make sure that the right protections are baked in.”