A prominent civil liberties group is campaigning to repeal the Coronavirus Act as the prime minister warned that people could be arrested if they breach new social gathering rules.
From Monday, people will be banned from meeting socially in groups of more than six. In a televised Downing Street briefing yesterday, Boris Johnson said the ban will be set out in law and ‘anyone breaking the rules risks being dispersed, fined and possibly arrested’.
Shortly afterwards, Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaign officer at Liberty, told a Young Legal Aid Lawyers group meeting that a public health crisis requires a public health response, not a criminal justice one. ‘Trust is a precious commodity in a public health crisis. We should be facilitating compliance with clear messaging rather than control,’ she said.
Liberty has set up a petition calling for the act, which it says puts criminal justice ahead of public health, to be scrapped. Comyn told the event that the act, which was fast-tracked through parliament before coming into force on 25 March, includes a six-month parliamentary review clause. A parliamentary debate must take place before 3 October.
The act contains a wide range of powers. For instance, it gives public officials in England emergency powers to test, isolate and detain a person where they have reasonable grounds to think the person is infected, and postpone elections. However, Comyn said there is growing discontent in parliament about the legislation.
‘In a few weeks’ time, parliament will have the opportunity to vote on renewing powers in the act. It’s an all or nothing vote. Parliament cannot say “these aspects we would like to keep but these powers can go”. They will vote on a motion to renew or repeal the act. It’s an important opportunity for parliament to assert their concerns about the plan the government is taking,’ she said.
Yesterday, during prime minister's questions, Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he expected health secretary Matt Hancock to apologise to MPs for not telling them first that the government planned to limit social gatherings. Sir Desmond Swayne, a Conservative MP, told the commons that 'had the [health secretary] given notice of the government’s intention to further restrict our liberty to meet with one another in his statement yesterday, at least some of us would have been able to question him about it'.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.