Coronavirus: Labour demands Boris Johnson give MPs votes every six months on emergency powers
Emergency Coronavirus Bill expected to be tabled in parliament on Thursday
The Emergency Coronavirus Bill – to be tabled in parliament on Thursday – will give ministers the ability they claim is needed to respond to the escalating threat of the virus and support the NHS.
They include enabling the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the outbreak of covid-19 “in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any moveable structure and any offshore installations and where necessary, to close premises”.
It will also allow for the greater use of video hearings in court cases and introduce changes so that recently retired NHS and adult social staff will be enabled to return to work without any loss of pensions rights.
But MPs have raised concerns the legislation due the length of time ministers will hold the sweeping powers – despite the government claiming they will only be used when it is “absolutely necessary” and on the advice of the chief medical officers of the four nations.
In a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday evening, Jeremy Corbyn said the legislation “must be renewed every six months by a fresh vote in parliament” and that it would essential for Labour’s support.
The Labour leader, who met with Mr Johnson on Monday to discuss the legislation, said the party recognises the need “for urgent government intervention to arrest the spread of the virus and offset the economic impact”.
But he added: “Given how far-reaching these [powers] are proposed to be, people’s elected representatives must be able to decide whether they renew the legislation at least every six months, up to its expiration after two years. We will careful scrutinise the Bill in areas that affect our civil liberties”.
Ed Davey, the acting Liberal Democrat leader, said wile the powers were “clearly necessary” to deal with the spread of covid-19 in the UK, he added: “Liberal Democrats have serious concerns about parliament handing over such far-reaching powers to ministers for a full two years.
“This is why the Liberal Democrats are seeking to ensure the legislation includes provision for parliament to have a future vote on whether it is necessary for government to retain these powers beyond a year.”
The Labour MP Chris Bryant, who raised a point of order over the issue in the Commons chamber, also said: “I can tell you now, this is the greatest emergency we’ve faced for many years, but I’m not voting for draconian emergency measures that last two years unless they require regular renewal by parliament. The civil contingencies bill requires renewal every 28 days.”
Earlier, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the emergency bill will only “be used when it is absolutely necessary and must be timed to maximise their effectiveness”.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, added: “"Our approach to responding to this outbreak has and will remain driven by the scientific and clinical evidence so we do the right thing at the right time.
"The measures included in this Bill will help support our frontline workers, protect the public and delay the peak of the virus to the summer months when the NHS is typically under less pressure."