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Editorial Why the government's emergency powers priorities are wrong

THE government has been quick to slap down rumours that the military is about to police our streets or enforce its social isolation advice.

But if the rumour-mill is in overdrive it needs to recognise that its own wildly fluctuating policies have contributed to that.

Many of the emergency powers likely to be nodded through Parliament next week are necessary, such as measures to allow the recently retired to re-enter the NHS workforce without loss of pension entitlements, or protection for volunteers so that they can pause their ordinary jobs without risking losing them.

Others, especially those allowing authorities to detain and isolate people more easily, have an obvious logic in protecting the public but an equally obvious potential for abuse.

The left’s warnings about the consequences of cash-starved, understaffed public services have been vindicated by Britain’s poor state of readiness in the face of coronavirus.

That’s illustrated by comparison with countries like Germany, where nearly 14,000 confirmed cases have led to 42 deaths when in Britain fewer than 3,000 have caused 137 deaths. (If the government’s irresponsibly lax attitude to testing for the virus skews the figures that hardly restores faith in its efficiency).  

But in the rush to do all we can to limit the reach of this deadly disease the left should not forget other aspects of its critique of the British state.

The police forces wielding emergency powers will be the same ones exposed in recent years for infiltrating and spying on left-wing groups, including by abusing women into long-term relationships under false pretences.

The same whose lies about Hillsborough and Orgreave have been revealed to the world. The same that colluded in the illegal blacklisting of trade unionists.

That doesn’t mean emergency powers aren’t necessary — but campaign group Liberty is right to announce it will be carefully monitoring what powers are adopted and how they are deployed.

Labour is also right to query the need for such powers to last a full two years. Of course the duration of the pandemic cannot be predicted, and some forecasts suggest we will indeed be battling it into next year. But even in the second world war Parliament annually renewed emergency legislation.

The bigger problem however is that the very reason the government is reaching for a big stick is because it has done so little to enable people to follow its advice voluntarily.

Whitehall is apparently “alarmed” that despite clear advice from the Prime Minister, Tube journeys in London only dropped by 19 per cent over 48 hours while bus journeys dropped by just 10 per cent.

No wonder, when for all the Chancellor’s hype about loans and support for businesses, almost nothing has been done to protect working people from a loss of income that will leave them unable to feed or house themselves.

Millions living in rented accommodation face loss of earnings with no rent holiday — merely a temporary ban on evictions that doesn’t stop them getting mired in debt.

Relief for employers on statutory sick pay is welcome, but millions are ineligible for it and it is set far too low for many workers to risk failing to attend work because they are ill, as Lord John Hendy QC explains in tomorrow’s Morning Star.

Where are the income guarantees, the deals struck as they have been in other countries between government, employers and unions to ensure workers aren’t forced to choose between their and others’ health and a catastrophic loss of earnings?

There are always cases of individual irresponsibility, but most people do not wilfully endanger themselves and others. If millions are still commuting despite official advice, it is because they cannot afford not to.

The government can best protect the public by ensuring everyone is in a position to follow its recommendations, rather than concentrating on penalising those who do not.

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