Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.
As we went into lockdown in late March, Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act. The public wanted action, but this act was an overreaction, creating the most sweeping and dangerous changes to state power seen in a generation. And while it was widely understood and accepted that we would all have to make temporary sacrifices, these new powers could last indefinitely.
The Act, which the human rights group Liberty has called “the biggest restriction on our individual and collective freedoms in a generation”, goes far beyond proportionate action. It contains powers many people don’t even know exist, and stands on the statute books as a potentially permanent threat to our freedom.
It imposes restrictions on the right to protest, creates radical powers to suspend elections and undermines oversight of covert Government surveillance programmes.
The most dangerous powers in the Act can be found in Schedule 21, containing extreme police detention powers. This Schedule gives breath-taking powers to the police, immigration officers and other officials to detain any “potentially infectious” members of the public, including children, potentially indefinitely and in unspecified locations.
The Health Secretary has further made a string of separate laws, including the self-isolation law brought into force yesterday, making it a criminal offence to fail to isolate, whether as a result of a positive Covid-19 test, close contact with an infected person, or travel from a country on the quarantine list.
In what world would we want police officers tasked with locking up members of the public outside of these laws, somehow determining that they are “potentially infectious”? Our police have a tough enough job as it is. Now they would have to be highly trained lawyers perfectly to navigate the stack of statutory instruments they are now supposed to impose; and they would have to be at least highly trained medics to sensibly wield these powers.
The College of Policing has already attempted two versions of guidance on Schedule 21, and has now had to open a consultation on the powers, seemingly in attempt to stem the flow of unlawful policing under the powers. As one line in the consultation tellingly says: “police officers are not medically trained”.
Every single charge under the Coronavirus Act – 141 so far – has been found unlawful on review by the CPS, which had to open a rolling review of every use of these powers due to these prolific failures. The Schedule 21 powers are responsible for the shocking rate of 100 per cent unlawful prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act.
For almost six months, we have lived not just with the anxiety of health warnings, but with this sprawling web of control. In other circumstances, Britain would have condemned both the content of this legislation and the way it passed. The Act went through Parliament in one day. The Health Protection Regulations were passed through emergency powers – avoiding any oversight both when they were imposed, and when they were repeatedly altered throughout lockdown.
The Act was rushed through in a bid to give the Government the powers it needs to get to grips with this disease, but, six months later, it’s evident that it’s a blunt instrument that does more harm than good. The patience and goodwill that saw us all make enormous sacrifices and help each other through the early days of lockdown are not infinite resources – they will be depleted if the Government strategy fails to learn and improve.
The prospect of a second wave of Covid-19 infections means we must continue to take precautions and make sacrifices where necessary and proportionate. It absolutely does not mean we must continue exactly as we have up to this point.
This is the point at which to look back on the last six months and ensure we have learned from them. During the lockdown, much Government decision-making was unclear and communications seemed confused. As we rattled through a dizzying set of lockdown regulations, many of us were left unsure if we might be criminalised for anything from looking after our families to going out for exercise.
Research indicates we will reap the most public health benefits by giving people the tools to comply by way of clear, evidence-based messaging rather than coercing them into submission. We need the British public to trust that the Government is following the evidence; we should also trust in them to act sensibly for their families and neighbours rather than policing their every move.
The Coronavirus Act and other legislation used in the crisis create enormous changes to our relationship as individuals with the state. The Act was a blunt and excessive reaction to an unknown threat, and the last six months have shown we need to facilitate compliance, rather than relying on coercion and control.
Tomorrow, Parliament will vote on whether to repeal the Act. It seems likely it will hang over us for at least another six months, and possibly years to come. Those of us who love liberty stand ready to help the Government do what is right: to show the public that we have heard their concerns, seen their sacrifices, and are ready to deliver a better strategy.
When so many have sacrificed so much, we will not be forgiven if we do not learn from the experience of the past six months. We have learned that the Coronavirus Act goes too far. The Government should bring forward plans to repeal and replace it with legislation that we can scrutinise full in the light of experience – before it damages faith in this Government, and our civil liberties beyond repair.