Emergency Coronavirus Bill Gives Police an Alarming Amount of Power

By Shabana Arif on at

The Department of Health has introduced the Coronavirus Bill to Parliament that gives the fuzz the power to detain people under the new laws.

Details of the bill have been shared on the government's official website and it includes some alarming measures that could be in place for as long as two years. The temporary amendments to existing laws are said to be proportionate to the threat that the coronavirus pandemic presents, and will only be in place for as long as necessary. The update states:

"The bill allows the 4 UK governments to switch on these new powers when they are needed, and, crucially, to switch them off again once they are no longer necessary, based on the advice of Chief Medical Officers of the 4 nations."

This type of legislation, that rolls out during public panic, often sees some 'temporary' regulations remain in place long after - take the restriction of liquids on planes for example. In 2016, the European commission admitted that the ban "was envisaged as a temporary restriction to be lifted when suitable technology to screen liquids for explosives became readily available," but we're still adhering to those rules today, because terrorists. Apparently that threat isn't as deadly as being caught short on a flight with less than 100ml (3.4 ounces) of hand sanitiser, as the TSA announced last week that airline passengers can now "bring liquid hand sanitiser up to 12 oz in carry-on bags until further notice." That's a whopping 355ml - over triple the previous allowance.

Speaking on the topic of the liquid ban in 2016, Malcolm Ginsberg, Editor in Chief of Business Travel News, pointed out that:

"One just becomes acclimatised to a world where passing through an airport is plain hard going. Why the 100ml maximum size for liquids? Who knows? Is it a secret plan by airports to ensure maximum duty-free sales? When is this ‘temporary’ restriction going to be lifted? It was supposed to be 18 months ago.”

The Coronavirus Bill focuses on five areas as part of the UK government's four-stage strategy (contain, delay, research, mitigate). In order to ease the burden on the NHS, recently retired staff and social workers will be able to return to work, while in Scotland, those on career breaks, or who are social worker students will be allowed to become "temporary social workers."

Admin requirements will be cut down, "allowing key workers to perform more tasks remotely and with less paperwork," and local authorities to prioritise care for those with the most urgent needs.

Existing mental health legislation is being tweaked, giving the power to detain and treat patients who "are a risk to themselves or others" to just one doctor to sign off rather than the current two, because fewer doctors are milling about with time on their hands right now. It also allows for the "extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation" but that won't be happening unless staff numbers take a beating.

In order to delay and slow the virus, there's some wishy-washy paragraphs about reducing unnecessary social contact by preventing people gathering in numbers, while the government has still failed to close schools or give the order for venues like pubs and restaurants to close, leaving them in a limbo of not wanting to close because of the potentially devastating financial loss both the business and staff could face, and not wanting to stay open so as not to put anyone's health at risk. The Prime Minister didn't have anything useful to say on the topic when confronted about the matter.

It goes on to detail that police and immigration officers will be granted the power to detain and quarantine people suspected of being infected:

"Public support and compliance is crucial and we are grateful for the flexibility people have shown, but we need to ensure police and immigration officers have the authority to enforce these measures where necessary. Therefore, the bill will enable the police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious and to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment."

The government won't give the order to shut down places where people gather, putting them at a higher risk of contracting the virus, but is handing out the power to the police to drag people off at a moment's notice if they think you're infected. Obviously I'm exaggerating for effect a bit here, but how about officially shutting down at-risk places first, and seeing how that pans out, before giving the okay for the police to detain people who may have contracted the virus from attending gatherings at the places the authorities refuse to close down. It's arse about face.

The bill reiterates that people should stay at home if they have a high temperature, or a new and persistent cough, and as such, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will kick in on the first day that they're off work, so that you can self-isolate without worrying about losing pay. Under current law, SSP doesn't apply for the first three days that you're off sick. It'll be backdated to March 13, and small businesses with less than 250 employees will be able to reclaim SSP paid out for coronavirus sickness related absences for the duration of the pandemic.

Elsewhere in the bill, it details support for schools so that they can stay open, "minimising disruption to everyday life," which again, is ridiculous in light of the power to detain those who are suspected of being sick. Support could include "reducing teacher ratios, adapting school meal standards and relaxing provisions for those with special educational needs."

Meanwhile, home secretary Priti Patel will be granted the power to close ports and airports if Border Force staff shortages gets to a point that results in "a real and significant threat to the UK’s border security."

So it's all going a bit mental, but you can do your part by staying inside and not buying out the entire stock of essential household goods when you pop to the shop.

Feature image credit: Unsplash