On March 25, the Coronavirus Act expires. That means it’s been two years since the legislation was rushed through parliament with next to no parliamentary scrutiny from MPs.
It handed sweeping new powers to the police, including the power to detain anyone “potentially infectious”, lowered care standards for disabled people and older people, and threatened the right to protest, paving the way for the disgraceful scenes we saw at Clapham Common at a vigil following the murder of Sarah Everard. It has since been ruled in court that the police breached the rights of the organizers.
As well as introducing the Coronavirus Act, the government also deployed reams of confusing regulations and guidance under the Public Health Act 1984, once more as part of a growing trend of evading parliamentary scrutiny.
So, with many months of lockdowns behind us, and more than 100,000 fines issued, what have we really learned about the government’s response to the pandemic?
Right from the beginning, it was clear that the government was going to take an enforcement-led approach to the pandemic, focusing on giving the police new and punitive powers rather than ensuring support for all. This, in my opinion, was foolish. The virus has shown us that no one is protected until we are all protected.
This is why civil society groups – and many MPs across the political spectrum, myself included – called for a public health approach from the very beginning: giving people the support they needed to self-isolate when they tested positive, and suspending the hostile environment so that migrants could access healthcare without fear of detention or deportation.
In March 2020, I tabled my Coronavirus (No 2) Bill with a cross-party group of MPs, based on Liberty’s Protect Everyone Bill. The bill would have ensured that sick pay was high enough that people on low incomes could afford to self-isolate, and that everyone could access safe and secure accommodation.
It would have ensured that everyone could access healthcare without fear, and that public health information was communicated clearly and accessibly. It would also have reinstated democratic scrutiny and transparency over laws that have a significant impact on our lives.
Sadly, the government missed this opportunity and pushed on instead with its own approach, based on coercion and enforcement. This approach wasn’t only unjust; it was shambolic. We’ve seen measures such as vaccine passports proposed, withdrawn, reintroduced and scrapped again – most recently, mandatory vaccines for health and social care workers will now be scrapped, after many workers have already quit or lost their jobs.
We’ve also seen other powers, such as Care Act easements and Children and Families Act easements, which lowered care standards, withdrawn due to public pressure.
And, at the same time, we saw powers repeatedly misused. Under Schedule 21, which created far-reaching powers to compel testing and isolation of “potentially infectious” people, 307 people were charged – and after a review by the Crown Prosecution Service, all 307 charges were found to be wrongful.
Overall, more than 100,000 fines, otherwise known as fixed penalty notices (FPNs), have been issued in England since the start of the pandemic. There was clear disproportionality in the use of FPNs, with data showing that Black people were up to seven times more likely to be fined than white people.
To make matters worse, these FPNs come with no formal right of appeal, making it extremely difficult for those fined to challenge the penalty. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said that every FPN issued under coronavirus regulations must be reviewed. I believe that every person fined should be able to appeal. It is not too late to do the right thing.
The end of the Coronavirus Act does not mean we can simply stop scrutinizing the government’s approach to the pandemic. For example, FPNs are issued under regulations in the Public Health Act, which is staying on the statute books, meaning that these purposes could easily be reintroduced in the future.
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At the same time, the government is withdrawing crucial support for people to stay safe – it ended the eviction ban months ago, and has scrapped free lateral flow tests. These are reckless, counterproductive measures that hit the poorest hardest and put vulnerable people at further risk.
The Coronavirus Act is not the only time the government has tried to rush oppressive legislation through parliament: it’s becoming the norm. Throughout the pandemic, they have tried to shield themselves from accountability, using a crisis as an excuse to change the rules to suit themselves, for instance by passing hundreds of statutory instruments with limited democratic scrutiny.
And, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill going through right now is another attempt to further expand police powers and restrict our ability to stand up to power.
With the cost of living rising steeply, and Covid still circulating in communities, a rights-based approach is the best way forward. We should have learned by now that we cannot police our way out of the pandemic – instead we need a response focused on protecting everyone.