Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
I have been contacted by many constituents about the renewal of temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020.
COVID-19 remains a serious threat to public health. Across the UK daily infection rates persist in their thousands and more than 126,000 people have already sadly died. We must continue to work hard to break transmission chains and prevent the virus from replicating.
While extraordinary progress has been made in the vaccine rollout, we know that the virus mutates and it could come back and hit us even harder. I therefore accept that temporary restrictions need to remain in place, although I did not support the renewal of provisions under the Coronavirus Act 2020 with any enthusiasm, not least because it contains some of the most draconian powers ever seen in peacetime Britain. That is why the Labour opposition tabled this motion:
Line 1, leave out from “That” to end and insert “this House, while not rejecting the motion debated under section 98 of the Coronavirus Act, regrets that the Government’s handling of the pandemic has resulted in one of the highest death tolls in the world and the worst economic crisis of any major economy; calls for economic support not to end before restrictions are lifted enabling the safe reopening of society and protecting jobs; to support the NHS in facing the unprecedented challenges of covid-19 and in driving up vaccination rates in hard to reach areas, and to ensure that all those who are required to self-isolate are able to do so; ensure that all the powers used in the act are transparent and proportionate for all citizens and give consideration to reviewing the Act in three months’ time,
and calls upon the Government to —
(a) lay before each House of Parliament no later than 16 April 2021 a report on prosecutions that have been made under Section 21 of the Act including an assessment of the proportionality of such prosecutions, and an equality impact assessment thereof
(b) lay before each House of Parliament no later than 16 April 2021 and each month thereafter a report on any disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on individuals or groups.
I welcome the fact that some of the original provisions have now been removed from the Act, and that demonstrations are once again being allowed, although the proposed powers to restrict demonstrations in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill represent a threat to our liberties. I voted against the Bill recently.
I also share concerns about Schedules 21 and 22 under the Act.
Schedule 21 provides powers to detain potentially infectious persons. The Joint Committee on Human Rights said that, in the absence of any clear evidence to support the retention of these powers, they ought to be repealed. I urge the Government to look again at that Schedule.
I also hope Ministers will review Schedule 22 and come forward with alternatives. While that Schedule has never been used, the power it contains on gatherings has caused understandable concern.
Supported by the increased protection offered by vaccines, the Government has set out its plan to ease restrictions, with the aim to have all legal limits on social contact removed by 21 June 2021. In the meantime, continued restrictions must be accompanied by proper economic support. It is more important than ever that the test, trace and isolate system is working. Financial support for people who are required to self-isolate should also be made available to everyone who needs it.
The Government’s priority must be to use the Act to safely bring the country out of restrictions, support the NHS to recover from the pandemic, and ensure there are the measures in place to effectively restart the economy and enable those who will need to self-isolate in future to do so.
Some of those who contacted me also raised the Protect Everyone Bill which has been suggested as a replacement for the Coronavirus Act. I looked at the proposals in the draft Bill, and a number of them I agree with, but it doesn’t seem to say anything about the actions needed to implement lockdowns if they are necessary and I am not sure if it is meant to completely replace the existing legislation.
Thank you once again for contacting me about this important issue.
MP for Leeds Central