More than 30 'emergency' Covid-19 measures could become permanent in Scotland

Temporary powers to close schools during a pandemic and to issue public health regulations in the face of a new virus could be made permanent, the Scottish Government has said.

Announcing a consultation on the possibility of some “beneficial temporary measures” with the emergency powers granted to the Scottish Government during the Covid-19 pandemic, deputy first minister John Swinney said “innovative, beneficial” measures could be retained.

But the move was criticised by the Scottish Conservatives as a “clear sign” the SNP was “unwilling to give up their control over people’s lives”, while Scottish Labour urged scrutiny around the new powers.

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A swathe of new legislation could be brought into law by the government, with many of the measures focused on digitising public services and the courts.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney has announced a consultation into the extension of Covid-19 emergency powers.

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The Scottish Government would also be given the power to make public health regulations, such as those used during the pandemic, bringing it closer in line to powers available in England and Wales.

Powers to close schools or issue new rules on how they might operate in the face of another public health emergency, such as the use of blended learning, could also become permanent.

Ministers may also make permanent to ability to release prisoners early and the extension of the use of fiscal fines as an alternative to prosecution.

Mr Swinney said the government remained “committed” to ending the use of powers given to the government by the Coronavirus Acts which were “no longer necessary”.

The Covid recovery secretary said: “This consultation focuses on reviewing the legislative powers that have supported our response to Covid-19. We want to ensure we remove measures no longer needed in order to respond to the pandemic whilst keeping those where there is demonstrable benefit to the people of Scotland.

“This is an opportunity to maintain changes that have been welcomed by people who now don’t want to lose transformations that have been innovative, beneficial and increased access to services.

“While the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, its urgency has forced the public services we rely on to adapt and continue and still deliver, driving the pace of digital adoption and, in some cases, more efficient ways of working.

"As we enter the recovery phase, we now have a unique opportunity to reimagine how health and social care, learning and justice services can be designed and delivered around the lives and needs of the people who use them.”

Many of the powers are minor changes such as allowing virtual meetings and electronic document handling.

However, with the court backlog potentially taking up to ten years to clear, the consultation also focuses on making the court process more digitally friendly.

Appearances at non-trial hearings will no longer have to be in-person and first appearances in court may happen in a ‘nationwide sheriffdom’ rather than in a local sheriff court.

The consultation also asks for views around extending powers to allow for longer statutory time limits around the length of time a prisoner can be held on remand and to allow for longer waits between court appearances as measures which could help reduce the backlog in the courts.

Ken Dalling, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “We welcome this consultation, which will give the Law Society as well as other interested organisations and individuals the opportunity to consider the impact of the policy changes brought in to respond to the pandemic.

"As public health restrictions are lifting, it is important to examine exactly what is in place and to consider where there are longer-term benefits in continuing as we are, where changes are no longer needed, and where there should be additional measures to help support this next phase of recovery.”

Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union, said: “Scotland needs to have a collaborative approach to decision making around potential school closures in any future pandemic scenario.

"Whilst there may be a need for the government to have legislative power, the bigger question is how we ensure social dialogue is preeminent in our system.”

Housing tribunals will also see their temporary power to take all circumstances into account at eviction hearings made permanent in advance of new housing legislation being introduced to Holyrood.

The remote registration of deaths, still-births and live births could also be made a permanent option.

Murdo Fraser, the Tory spokesperson on Covid recovery, said the decision to make these changes permanent was “rash”.

He said: “These powers were intended to be temporary measures to deal with the pandemic. The fact that SNP ministers are now seeking to make many of them permanent is a clear sign they are unwilling to give up their control over people’s lives.

“With the vast majority of Covid restrictions having now been eased, Scots will be asking serious questions over why these laws would need to remain in place permanently.

“It is a dangerous route to go down to allow ministers to implement sweeping powers upon society on a whim.

“The SNP already steamrolled an extension of Covid powers through Parliament and now they’ve snuck this consultation out while it is still in recess.

“They are clearly keen to avoid scrutiny over their plans, which would include releasing prisoners early and controlling how schools operate.”

Mr Fraser’s Scottish Labour counterpart Jackie Baillie said it was “right” to look at what worked well, but urged caution.

She said: “This is an opportunity to modernise and strengthen certain laws, where there are clear benefits to doing so, such as making the emergency provisions on bankruptcy permanent.

“However, we need robust scrutiny of these proposals to ensure that there is no weakening of rights or standards by the back door.

“People did not make such significant sacrifices to see cuts or for services to become inaccessible and distant.

“Learning to live with this virus in the long term does not mean surrendering to it.”

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