“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” is something I’ve heard often these past six months. Such framing is dangerous. It’s like saying “anything goes”. Yet it’s often invoked when people talk about the government’s response to the pandemic and specifically the Coronavirus Act, the biggest restriction on civil liberties in a generation.
Even though this enormously powerful act passed in a single day early on in the pandemic in March, MPs of all parties knew how dangerous it was. They noted that its powers were “unprecedented” (Ian Blackford, SNP), “alarming” (Edward Davey, Liberal Democrats), “extraordinary” (Theresa Villiers, Conservative). MPs called for it to be scratched from the statute books as soon as possible.
The opportunity to repeal this act is on Wednesday, when MPs will vote on its renewal. It must be seized.
One of the act’s most outrageous powers is to give police the right to detain any one of us they deem “potentially infectious”. This measure, under section 51 and schedule 21 of the act, is completely unjustified, and so broad it invites misuse. .
Even the Crown Prosecution Service was so concerned about the misuse of this power that in May it launched a monthly review of every single charge. The reviews published so far have concluded that every single charge under this part of the act has been unlawful. The first person to be wrongly convicted under schedule 21 was Marie Dinou, a black woman. A joint investigation by Liberty and the Guardian revealed that, under the lockdown regulations – which are separate to the Coronavirus Act – people of colour were 54% more likely to be fined than white people.
Other restrictions in the act may seem reasonable, for example around mass gatherings, but this effectively bans protest. It’s true that necessary and proportionate restrictions on protest are permissible under human rights law. Yet the Coronavirus Act contains no explicit protection of our right to protest. And while banning protest in a pandemic might seem “safe” for some, it doesn’t feel like that for a Black Lives Matter protester whose safety is often the last concern of the state.
The home secretary responded to Black Lives Matter by claiming the protests were illegal. Be in no doubt, snuffing out dissent is very attractive to those in power.
Elsewhere in the act, the government stripped away vital safeguards from people experiencing mental health problems, disabled people and older people – arguably those most at risk during this pandemic. Liberty’s lawyers have heard some distressing stories, including that of a terminally ill ex-serviceman who could not register for food or receive support from social services so was forced to survive on packets of crisps. This is because the Coronavirus Act weakens protections for those in need of care – allowing local authorities to apply “easements” – and leaves some people without care altogether. A 90-year-old disabled Liberty member whose wife passed away at the start of the pandemic was contacted by social services, but his needs were not addressed, leaving him lonely and suicidal. These are not exceptions.
Disabled people and older people are not the only ones abandoned by the government’s response. Migrants were either completely forgotten or deliberately ignored. Anyone with unsettled status is effectively barred from state support. The hostile environment prevails, even in a pandemic.
Liberty has always supported proportionate action to tackle this pandemic. But the powers within the Coronavirus Act can never be justified. As public health experts have been telling us again and again for the past six months, criminalisation and watering down rights are not solutions to a public health crisis – people need support and information to be able to stay safe and take care of one another.
The aAct’s other chilling powers include allowing the government to postpone elections and close borders. And while it has been widely reported that the legislation will lapse after two years, read it carefully and you’ll see that any part of it can be extended for a further six months – with indefinite renewals possible, without prior parliamentary approval.
As for democratic process, this act has done untold damage. Its very existence normalises the concentration of extraordinary power in the hands of the government and the police. It sends a signal to authoritarian regimes the world over – when people think extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, take full advantage. This week’s vote could not have more riding on it.
• Martha Spurrier is a British barrister and human rights campaigner, and the director of Liberty