The Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 provides for powers which are inimical to life in a free society, trespassing on some issues which people hold most dear, such as the wishes of the deceased.
Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch has warned that the Coronavirus Bill contains the “most draconian powers in peace time Britain”.
The Coronavirus Bill:
- Empowers police, immigration officers and public health officials to demand documentation; detain and isolate members of the public potentially indefinitely, including children; and forcibly take biological samples for testing;
- Permits prohibition of public events and gatherings without standard protections for strikes and industrial action that exist in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004;
- Weakens safeguards on the exercise of mass surveillance powers by quadrupling time review limits for urgent warrants;
- Provides powers to suspend port operations;
- Enables the disapplication of legislation relating to deceased wishes; and more
All stages of this 329-page Bill are intended to be taken in the Commons on Monday 23 March 2020. It is inconceivable that the Bill will receive scrutiny commensurate with its powers.
But the reason for these extraordinary measures is plain. We are engaged in an urgent national effort to save hundreds of thousands of lives and more jobs. The imperative of survival in the face of a mortal enemy has today as in the past forced Government to implement a command society, whatever the cost.
Those of us who are civil libertarians – who believe in a free society as the best route to human dignity and flourishing – cannot deny the imperative for immediate action.
However, the Prime Minister has cited a period of 12 weeks to turn the tide of coronavirus yet the Act expires at the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which it is passed, with two qualifications. Given the extraordinary powers in the Bill and the expediency with which it must be passed, a duration of two years is unacceptable. I therefore intend to support Amendment 6 which would sunset the provisions of the Bill after one year rather than after two years.
There is one power over which I have particular objections. Schedule 27 makes provision about the transportation, storage and disposal of dead bodies. Part 2, beginning on page 316, provides for directions and other measures to address a lack of capacity to deal with dead bodies. Clause 5 provides for the disapplication of legislation relating to deceased’s wishes:
5 The following do not apply to a designated local authority—
(a) section 46(3) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (local authority not to cause body to be cremated under that section contrary to the wishes of the deceased);
With similar provisions for Northern Ireland and Belfast Crematorium.
This provision means that – in an extreme contingency scenario in which a local authority has insufficient capacity to deal with dead bodies – bodies may be cremated contrary to the wishes of the deceased. I believe it is also possible under the Bill that people could be buried who wish to be cremated and I seek confirmation on that point.
In either case, I consider it extremely undesirable that the deceased’s wishes should be overturned.
Matters of the hereafter are unknown and unknowable. Reasonable people disagree and will continue to. But our society holds dear the principle that the wishes of a deceased person should be respected, whatever their faith or none. I know that Muslims in my constituency are particularly exercised about this provision.
The Memorandum to the Joint Committee on Human Rights refers. It reads at paragraph 179:
In extremis it may be necessary to bury or cremate bodies out of the area desired by the family and if that is not possible it may be necessary to bury or cremate even if the family wished the alternative (cremate rather than bury or bury rather than cremate). However, this would be a last resort, where there is not an identifiable alternative and if health and safety requirements on storage/disposal of bodies require that.
The Government argues that “the policy is a proportionate way of responding to a legitimate aim of public safety and dignity in death in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic given the need to strike a balance between the public interests and the interests of family life.” They also refer to the protections of the Convention rights.
However, the idea that people might be cremated against their wishes is causing widespread alarm in my constituency, possibly exacerbated by unreasonable provocation. That is why I am supporting the manuscript amendment tabled by the Hon Lady for Bradford West, which provides that:
where a deceased is to be cremated and it goes against their religious belief the designated authority must consult the next of kin or Power of Attorney or the relevant local faith institution in so far as reasonably possible to find a suitable alternative before proceeding with the cremation
Knowing local councillors and council officials as I do, I think it inconceivable that people in Wycombe would be cremated against their wishes without consultation or that it would be contemplated if there were any alternative. Nevertheless, I think it right that this reasonable amendment should be adopted to provide reassurance about the actions a designated authority would take even in the most extreme contingency.
I note that my church has ceased to meet at this time, as have our mosques. I do not wish to be buried but I understand that in extremis, burial is more likely to be a solution to a lack of capacity than cremation. I know that our local councillors and officials are already making provision to increase capacity, including for Muslim burials in Wycombe.
Moreover, dramatic steps are being taken to reduce the scale of this disease. I therefore think it most unlikely that anyone in Wycombe would suffer having their wishes overturned when deceased.
I will support the amendment to provide additional reassurance but in any event I will support the Bill containing the necessary contingency powers to preserve public safety whatever the scale of the disease and death from it.
All reasonable people should too.
 Full Bill information may be found at https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2019-21/coronavirus.html or via https://bit.ly/CVBill20
 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0122/Memorandum%20to%20the%20Joint%20Committee%20on%20Human%20Rights%20-%20The%20Coronavirus%20Bill%202020.pdf or via https://bit.ly/2QCxfdV