When the Commons voted this week on extending the provisions of the Coronavirus Act (‘the Act’) many MPs focused on the apparent contradiction of the Government seeking to extend most of the regulations by a further six months even whilst ministers continued to insist that the nation is on-track to unlock in June.
This doesn’t mean that they have to run that long. The Act empowers ministers the set date at which its provisions lapse by regulations. But it means that should they decide for whatever reason to try and extend lockdown until the autumn, Parliament would have no easy route to stop them.
One suspects that, once the crisis is passed, the legislative side of the pandemic will provide future politicians with more than a few pointers about what not to do. Some in Cabinet are reportedly arguing that it was naïve to allow the devolved governments to set their own public health regimes, forcing Westminster to try (and fail) to negotiate a ‘four-nation’ approach rather than simply delivering a one-nation one.
The long intervals on renewal built into the Coronavirus Act may be another. As it stands, ministers need only bring a motion before the House to get MPs’ authorisation to maintain its provisions every six months. If ever that seemed like a sensible timetable – and it’s important not to forget the environment in which the legislation was drafted – it seems excessive now.
For a Government with a majority of 80, the text of the Act is no barrier to remedying this situation. It ought to be perfectly straightforward to amend it so as to provide for parliamentary authorisation on a more regular basis. This would also be a gesture of goodwill towards the slowly-growing band of Conservative MPs opposed to the restrictions.
Should ministers fail to act, they may be able to ride the mandate of this week’s vote through the summer – but run into much more serious political difficulty renewing any provisions that might be necessary to combat a winter wave when the regulations come up for approval again in six months time.