Why was the Coronavirus Bill needed?
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic and called on all countries to “activate and scale up [their] emergency response mechanisms”. To date, the Government has taken several steps to curb the spread of the virus in the UK. These include introducing regulations to screen and quarantine individuals suspected of having the virus (where necessary), implementing an Action Plan, and publishing a range of public guidance and information. The Government first introduced the Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 on 19 March 2020.
It is clear that the virus will be with us for some time, and it is vital that we are able to take necessary steps to save lives. The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that sufficient staff are available, and deployed where they are most needed, as well as supporting members of the public, containing and slowing the virus, and managing the deceased with respect and dignity.
All the measures in the Coronavirus Act are temporary, and proportionate to the threat we face. They will only be used when strictly necessary, and will only be in place for as long as required to respond to the situation. The regulations have a sunset clause and will automatically expire after two years, unless a Minister makes further regulations to stop any provision in the initial regulations from expiring.
Originally all four nations made laws which:
- significantly restricted people’s free movement by prohibiting leaving home without a “reasonable excuse” and banning all public gatherings (with some exemptions).
- closed all but essential high street businesses. Businesses that could (retail and some hospitality), were permitted to operate by delivery.
- provided the police with powers to enforce the new laws. Police officers could issue Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) to those they suspected of lockdown offences. FPNs allow the accused to pay a fine rather than face prosecution for the offence.
The full lockdown was in force across the UK for around seven weeks. On the 13 May the Prime Minister announced changes to England’s laws which allowed people to leave their homes for outdoor recreation. The other three nations began easing their lockdown in the weeks that followed. In May and June, the lockdown laws in all four nations were frequently changed so that their restrictions were relaxed differently, both in terms of pace and substance.
On 23 June, around three months after he first announced the lockdown, the Prime Minister made a statement which would effectively end it in England. He announced that from 4 July lockdown laws in England would no longer provide legal restrictions associated with the Government’s social distancing guidance. The other three nations made similar changes to their laws in the weeks that followed. Laws in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still provide some restrictive rules on social gatherings, but there is essentially no longer a national lockdown anywhere in the UK.
The UK’s lockdown laws are now focused on managing coronavirus transmission rather than suppressing the spread of the disease. New laws have been made in all four nations which make wearing face coverings mandatory for some people in some public spaces. The UK Government has also made laws which impose specific restrictions in areas where the virus is most prevalent, so called “local lockdowns”.
The police have adopted a co-operative approach to policing coronavirus restrictions. They have sought compliance from the public before resorting to enforcement measures. Around 14,200 FPNs were issued in England whilst the full lockdown was in force. This amounted to around 25 fines for every 100,000 people living in England.
The police dramatically reduced the number of FPNs they issued when the lockdown laws were relaxed. There was a 75% reduction in the number of fines issued in England between the last week full lockdown restrictions were in place and the first week outdoor recreation was permitted. The latest full week of data available (for the period between 14 August and 20 August) two FPNs were issued in England under the national lockdown regulations.
For cases that moved forward with prosecution, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been reviewing these cases and they have recently released statistics showing that 94% have been charged correctly.
Schedule 21 (Forced Detention)
I completely appreciate your concerns about the power conferred by the Coronavirus Act relating to people who may be infectious. I know that most people have been working extremely hard, and making numerous sacrifices, to comply with relevant public health advice. This provision simply seeks to ensure that isolation measures can be enforced if necessary. In practice, this power would take the form of a public health officer or police officer returning people to places that they have been required to stay. For example, if someone has been contacted by NHS Test and Trace and required to self-isolate for 14 days, and then is found out and about during that time, they would be returned home. Equally, the act empowers police and immigration officers to make sure that individuals attend testing or treatment facilities as required.
From a personal point of view, if on the one hand someone with the virus was recklessly mixing with vulnerable people and refusing to stop, I would want something to be done about it. On the other hand, for less clear cut breaches, I would want the police to exercise their discretion and appeal to people's sense of reason and responsibility to society. It is also important that measures like this are kept under close review by Parliament and remain temporary.
I understand that these measures may seem intimidating, and I know that the overwhelming majority of people are following guidance and obeying self-isolation instructions. However, we must be prepared to enforce these measures, to ensure that the small number of people who do not comply are not putting lives at risk by their behaviour.
I welcome that the Government has sought to offer Parliament additional scrutiny, offering MPs a vote on changes to regulations wherever that is possible, on England- or UK-wide measures before they come into place. The most important national measures will have more time before Parliament for debate before being enacted. This means that if Parliament wished to reject a set of measures, a majority of MPs now have the capability to do so.
Secretary State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock MP said: "I can confirm to the House that for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England, or UK-wide, we will consult parliament - wherever possible we will hold votes before such regulations come into force"
I agree that it is vital for actions to be taken as swiftly as possible in the fight against coronavirus, but I also believe it is important that Parliament has additional opportunities to thoroughly examine new measures before they are put in place wherever that can be achieved.
Local authority support for disabled people
It is important to state that local authorities are still expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period, and the legislation does not remove the duty of care towards an individual's risk of serious neglect or harm. These powers will only be used if demand pressures and workforce illness during the pandemic meant that local authorities were at imminent risk of failing to fulfil their duties and only last the duration of the emergency. It would ensure that local authorities will continue to be able to deliver the best possible care services during the peak and to protect the lives of the most vulnerable members of society.
Face Coverings/ Face Masks
I know that the Government is following scientific guidance to ensure that steps are taken to ensure that people are able to go about their business as safely as possible. While I understand that the science in this area has evolved during the outbreak, the body of scientific evidence that has built up shows that the risk of transmission is made lower by wearing a face covering.
New rules about face coverings do not mean people should wear surgical masks or respirators (which need to be kept available for those who need to wear them at work). Instead, people should wear the kind of face covering that can easily be made at home. Face coverings should cover the mouth and nose while allowing you to breathe comfortably, and can be as simple as a scarf or bandana that ties behind the head to give a snug fit. Indeed, the Government has published advice for people on how to make their own face coverings at home. I hope that these measures will help restore confidence and also add further protection to enable people to go about their daily business. However, it is important to keep in mind that this measure is in addition to the existing safety measures, including regular hand washing and observing social distancing.
Some people will be exempt from needing to wear a face covering, for example children under the age of 11. Moreover, some people will have a reasonable excuse not to wear one. This would apply, for instance, to a person who has a disability or a physical or mental illness or impairment which means they cannot wear a face covering. The full list of exemptions and reasonable excuses can be found at the following link: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-…
It is important to be sensitive to the needs and experiences of those who have a reasonable excuse not to wear a mask. This is why people with a reasonable excuse should not be routinely asked to give written evidence of their exemption.
I agree that it is vital to balance the need to restrict the spread of the virus without infringing on civil liberties, while allowing the restoration of economic and social life. My colleagues in Government have made a judgement that the best way to balance these things is to enable people to go out and about, and to see and socialise with friends and family, but to require that, if they choose to do so, they take additional measures to restrict the spread of this virus by wearing face coverings in certain situations. It is vital that we do all that we can to protect a second wave of Covid-19. I know that the Government is keeping all guidelines under constant review to ensure that any restrictions in place are worthwhile measures in the fight against coronavirus, and I urge my constituents to comply with these measures.
I know that some people expressed concern about rumoured health risks of wearing a face covering. However, let me be clear that these claims are false and unsubstantiated. For example, hypoxia, or deprivation of oxygen, is not caused by the breathable materials recommended for face coverings, nor by the prolonged use of medical masks when properly worn in line with recommendations for the product. There is absolutely no evidence that face coverings cause hypercapnia, or too much carbon dioxide in the blood, unless they are entirely air tight: carbon dioxide molecules that you breathe out exit through and around the types of face coverings that are commonly worn. Further, there is no evidence at all to support the claim that face coverings can suppress the body's immune system - they may stop germs getting into your mouth or nose so that the immune system does not have to kick in, but this is not the same as it being suppressed. I believe it is extremely irresponsible for people to promote these myths in any forum, particularly on social media where they have been widely shared, when there is an increasing body of evidence to show that face coverings can reduce the spread of coronavirus and as such can save lives.
Since 24 July 2020, it has been mandatory to wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets in England. This move will help give shoppers more confidence to shop safely while also enhancing protection. I know the British Retail Consortium has said that social distancing measures and face coverings can make shoppers feel more confident to return to the high street. Sadly sales assistants, cashiers and security guards have suffered disproportionately in this crisis. I understand that the death rate of sales and retail assistants is 75 per cent higher among men, and 60 per cent higher among women than in the general population and therefore I am pleased that action is being taken to mitigate risk and keep our shopkeepers and retail staff safe. Under the new rules, should an individual refuse to wear a face covering they could face a fine of up to £100. Likewise, children under 11 and those with certain disabilities are also exempt.
It is also mandatory to wear a face covering when travelling in England, for example on a bus, train, coach, tram, ferry, hovercraft, aircraft or cable car. Face coverings should also be worn in other enclosed spaces where maintaining social distancing is difficult, such as in taxis and private hire vehicles and at stations and airports. Transport operators can stop those who are not wearing a face covering, but who should be wearing one, from travelling. The British Transport Police and Transport for London enforcement officers are also assisting with enforcement, and passengers who do not comply with the face covering rules could be fined £100, or £50 if paid within 14 days.
I agree that it is vital to ensure that patients who are deaf or hard of hearing are not isolated from care through face coverings preventing them from lip reading, particularly children who may not feel confident asking someone they have not heard correctly to repeat themselves. That is why I am glad that a coalition of charities, including the National Deaf Children's Society, Action on Hearing Loss and the Royal Association of Deaf People have joined forces to issue guidance on how to speak with a face mask. These tips are:
- Write phrases down
- Use a text to speak app
- Conduct conversations over video call, where there is no need to wear a mask
- Try to use a clear face mask or visor
- Find a quiet place to talk
I welcome that Government public transport guidance states that if you are travelling with, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip reading to communicate, you are exempted from the requirement to wear a face mask.