Gove and the vaccinators take control. First debate in Parliament as opposition to lockdown builds.

Michael Gove warned at yesterday’s press conference that a return to pre-virus normality was not possible until a vaccine is widely available.

A handful of optimistic estimates have suggested a vaccine could be being mass-produced by the end of the year, but the general scientific consensus is still that mid-2021 is the best-case scenario.

– Recalculating route –

And so attention today will again be on what next for Britain’s lockdown. Parliament will begin to debate the lockdown powers for the first time, with a number of Tory MPs expected to criticise them. Steve Baker previews their case in an OpEd for today’s Telegraph.

However, the Prime Minister’s announcement of a roadmap for easing the lockdown has been delayed from Thursday to Sunday. Ministers are only today receiving the first set of data from the Office of National Statistics community testing for the virus, which works somewhat like an opinion poll and should give a much better sense of how widespread the infection is.

Delaying the announcement until Sunday will allow them time to study a second set expected later in the week. Even then, measures in the roadmap may not kick in for some time.

– Commuting in the time of coronavirus –

Still, we’ve had more glimpses in the last 24 hours of what easing might look like. Yesterday, Gove confirmed for the first time that the Government was willing to keep stricter restrictions in place on a localised or regional basis.

Meanwhile, draft guidance has reportedly been given to businesses on how to reopen workplaces. According to several outlets, it includes measures such as ending shared desks and having staggered shifts. Those who can work from home would still be expected to.

Yesterday, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, also gave some details on how people might get to work once the lockdown eases. Fully following the Government’s two-metre distance guidance (which is double the WHO’s advised distance) could reduce train capacity to just 12 per cent.

That means other measures will be necessary. These, Shapps said in a TV interview, could include staggered shifts and one-way systems in stations, and commuters would be encouraged to cycle to work. Shapps also said he wanted to make hand-washing and sanitising more readily available.

Still, all of this remains some weeks away, with a potential start date of May 26. In the meantime, all the public can do is wait.

Front Bench

On March 23, as we debated the Coronavirus Act, Boris Johnson told the nation in a statement, “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”

On March 24, the Government texted the nation, “new rules in force now: you must stay at home.” Immediately, the police in various places began enforcing them.

A barbecue was turned over by police in the West Midlands. Officers in Crewe stopped cars to ascertain whether they were making essential journeys. British Transport Police stopped and questioned people on trains in and around London, asking their reasons for travel.

But there was no new law in force until 1pm on March 26.

That’s when the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations were signed into law by Matt Hancock under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. While most of us complied by voluntary consent, where the police enforced the rules in the meantime, they were enforcing a proclamation. Whatever the necessities, that the rule of law should have been overthrown in this period is extraordinary and deeply troubling.

Only today do those rules enforcing the most draconian restrictions in British history come before the Commons for retrospective endorsement with just two hours debate and no division. We have lived under house arrest for weeks by ministerial decree – a statutory instrument that parliament had no foresight of and no opportunity to scrutinise or approve before it changed life in this country as we know it. The situation is appalling.

As I conceded on March 23, there were good reasons for ministers to take rapid action. The public would expect nothing less. The first responsibility of any government is to protect the lives of its people and faced with the uncertainty of this awful virus, the instruction for us all to stay at home to save lives was the right call.

But this suspension of freedom comes with a cost too. Millions of people in our country have been plunged into idleness at public expense and unemployment, facing financial and psychological hardship on a scale never seen before. Thousands of people have missed life-prolonging health appointments. Vulnerable people are isolated and domestic violence has soared. Soon will come the full economic impact on all our lives.

These extraordinary measures require not only legal authority but democratic consent. There is a real possibility that they have had neither.

A judicial review is being brought against the lockdown laws, claiming they are ultra vires – that is, that ministers have no legal authority to impose them in the way they did – and that they incur a disproportionate interference with fundamental rights and freedoms. There is serious legal scholarship supporting that view. I fear the present rules may be unlawful.

Meanwhile, the CPS is reviewing every single charge, conviction and sentence brought under emergency powers after civil liberties group Big Brother Watch detailed a string of wrongful convictions in a damning review. The zealous criminalisation of people for activity that, until a few weeks ago was entirely ordinary, has concerned many, including me. I am horrified by the expansion of the surveillance state, with thermal imaging cameras, drones, ANPR and location tracking being deployed at the drop of a hat to police the nation into imprisonment at home.

Police moving on sunbathers in Brighton in April 
Police moving on sunbathers in Brighton in April  CREDIT: MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES

This is why the role of parliament is so vital. We must oversee the extraordinary measures that are being taken. Only we can supply legal and democratic legitimacy to the difficult decisions that need to be made in this crisis.

As I read the regulations we will surely endorse on Monday, curtailing our freedoms in ways unimaginable, I see rules which are unclear, subjective and potentially legally unsound. For example, the law in England does not restrict how frequently or for how long we exercise, nor whether we drive to do it. Yet ministers have dilated on whether an hour or 30 minutes is allowable. And we have risked offences of sitting too long on a park bench, purchasing luxury food and sweating inadequately while cycling. People have been accused of not exercising when practicing yoga and walking. Families have been driven off their own outdoor property, against the law.

This is absurd, dystopian and tyrannical. The sooner it is ended, the better.

If parliament is to be able to scrutinise the lockdown restrictions on Monday, we must see the Government’s detailed exit strategy. Parliamentarians, and the public, need more than vague assurances to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When our lives are at stake, we cannot operate on trust alone.

The world just changed but British values have not. It is imperative we hold ministers’ and the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire to uphold Parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and the freedoms which rest upon them.


Government lockdown to come under sustained criticism from Conservative MPs worried about freedoms and economy

Tory MPs including Steve Baker, Sir Graham Brady, Sir Charles Walker and Robert Court are expected to raise concerns

Steve Baker MP
Steve Baker MP CREDIT:  Jason Alden/Bloomberg

The Government’s coronavirus lockdown will come under sustained criticism from Conservative MPs worried about its impact on Britons’ freedoms and damage to the economy.

Monday’s debate in the House of Commons on the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations will be the first time MPs have been able to discuss the lockdown powers.

Several Tory MPs including Steve Baker, Sir Graham Brady, Sir Charles Walker and Robert Court are expected to raise concerns that the lockdown risks damaging the economy and unnecessarily curtaining Britons’ liberty.

In an article for the Telegraph Mr Baker said the Prime Minister had to provide a clear exit strategy from the “absurd, dystopian and tyrannical” coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Baker, a former minister and a leading Tory Brexiteer, warned that the powers taken by Mr Johnson’s Government have left millions of people  “living under house arrest for weeks by ministerial decree” and had had a “disproportionate interference with fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Mr Baker, who sits on the libertarian wing of the party, said that while “the world just changed but British values have not”.