This week marks one year since the UK first went into lockdown and MPs voted to give the Government unprecedented and extraordinary powers under the Coronavirus Act. My thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the 127,000 people who have lost their lives since then.
The best way of honouring the dead is to protect the living. On Thursday, MPs have a chance to do this, when the Coronavirus Act comes back before Parliament.
The only possible justification for giving the Government the extraordinary powers outlined in the Coronavirus Act is to keep us safe. With the UK reckoning with the highest death toll in all of Europe and the deepest recession of any OECD country, it’s clear they have failed to do this.
Far from protecting people, these measures have seen human rights jettisoned and left many people less safe. Last March, when the Act was introduced, human rights organisations warned that the powers it contained were loosely drafted, giving too much discretion to the home secretary and too much room for confusion.
At the Clapham Common vigil to remember Sarah Everard, we saw exactly what this meant. The police decision to stop women from exercising their civil liberties to express their grief and anger, left everyone less safe. They should never have been in a position to cancel it in the first place.
In practice, the Coronavirus Act has been used unlawfully and wrongfully against members of the public, without redress in many cases. We should be clear about who is bearing the brunt of unlawful and heavy-handed policing during the pandemic. In some parts of the UK, Black and Asian men have been seven times more likely to be fined under Covid laws.
By allowing local authorities to apply “easements,” the Act places disabled people, older people and those with mental illness in harm’s way. This measure is inseparable from the way the virus ripped through care homes and the fact that disabled people account for 60 per cent of all deaths during the pandemic.
These failings reflect the way the Government has tended to rely on policing their way out of the pandemic rather than providing people with the support they need to get through it. It didn’t have to be this way.
Instead of giving the police extra powers to enforce the rules, they could have put the emphasis on giving people the support they need to stay at home: from proper sick pay to clamping down on employers forcing staff back into workplaces. Instead of removing social care easements, they could have increased the legacy benefits relied on by almost two million disabled people.
After a catastrophic year, it’s clear we need substantive action to help those left vulnerable to the pandemic. It’s not too late to do the right thing. With a long way to go to full immunity, now is the time to put down legislation to protect everyone and support our recovery.
Voting down the Coronavirus Act on Thursday would give us 21 days to put down new legislation that centres human rights and public health. Dawn Butler has already tabled a Bill that enjoys cross-party support, based on Liberty’s brilliant Protect Everyone Bill blueprint.
As well as protecting basic freedoms, this Bill includes a range of measures: from increasing Statutory Sick Pay to scrapping social care easements, ending the Hostile Environment, making workplaces safe, protecting our data, and preventing evictions.
The pandemic has shown us again and again that nobody is protected from coronavirus until everyone is. It’s time to recognise this and act.
This article first appeared on Politics Home on the 25th March 2021.