THE CORONAVIRUS Act was put to Parliament for renewal yesterday, extending the sweeping police powers contained in it for a further six months until October.
Matt Hancock, Tory Health and Social Care Secretary, proposing the renewal, addressed Parliament yesterday afternoon.
He faced opposition from some of his own Tory MPs as well as Labour and Liberal MPs. However, Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth confirmed that Labour would vote for the renewal.
Hancock said: ‘I want to really stress this point to those who are understandably concerned about the extent of powers in the Coronavirus Act, although this Act remains essential and there are elements of it which we are seeking the renewal of, we always said that we will only retain powers for as long as they are necessary. They are exceptional powers and they were approved by this house in the most extreme situations.’
He added: ‘We propose to expire some of the emergency powers in this Act.’
However, he confirmed that the police powers remain.
He said: ‘The Act has been a crucial part of our response to this virus.
‘It helped us to protect the NHS in its hour of need, to keep public services, courts and local democracy running and offer financial assistance that of course has been a lifeline for so many people.
‘Some provisions in the act require renewal every six months.’
He claimed: ‘If we were to remove the temporary provisions in this Act altogether then we would lose measures protecting commercial tenants and renters from eviction, we would not be able to run virtual court hearings, people would not be able to receive statutory sick pay for the full period they self-isolate.’
Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent Central intervened: ‘Is it not correct that if the Bill was voted down today that the government would have twenty-one days to put a new Bill to Parliament?
‘This Act is a blanket of draconian powers that this government has wrapped itself in.’
Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham said: ‘Under the Coronavirus Act we have had 250 people wrongly charged. This act is full of far-reaching powers which are not needed. The practical measures he talked about can be brought forward in the next 21 days and, as he suggested, this fake news that furlough can’t go on without renewing the Act, is just untrue because that is a permanent provision.’
Mark Harper, Tory MP for the Forest of Dean then interjected: ‘It is the controversial parts, the police powers to detain a potentially infectious person, which have been used unlawfully to detain on a number of occasions which remain.
‘It says that in his letter, in the one-year review of the Act. He has also just suggested that these provisions might be rolled forward a further six months. That is why so many of us are so worried. These are extraordinary provisions, not for normal times, and they should be expired at the first available opportunity.’
However, Jonathan Ashworth, said: ‘We must have zero tolerance to letting the virus rage unchecked. For that reason we do accept that restrictions have to stay in place. And for that reason we support the renewal of the Act and the Public Health Regulations.’
He reminded the House what he said a year ago that: ‘This Bill contains some of the most draconian powers that have ever been seen in peacetime Britain. Powers to detain and test potential infectious members of the public; powers to shut down gatherings, which could impede the ability to protest against the overall handling of the crisis or against the abuse of the powers themselves.’
After outlining the concerns that these powers curb the right to protest, Ashworth confirmed that nevertheless Labour will vote for them.
There was a small demonstration outside Parliament against the renewal of the Act.
Maureen Lambert told News Line: ‘I was arrested for only walking in Richmond Green in south west London with a friend when police told us that we had been warned not to be here.
‘There was just two of us and we were taken all the way to a police station in Bromley, in south east London.’
Katrina Jaye, demonstrating against the renewal of the legislation, said: ‘Protest is a fundamental right which should not be stopped.’ She alleged: ‘I have seen people arrested, women thrown to the ground with six or seven police holding them down. They were handcuffed and I saw bruises from the cuffs.
‘They were only peacefully protesting holding a banner. They were given a fixed penalty notice of £200. It is totally wrong.’