According to a new consultation, ministers wish to be given powers in order to “protect the people of Scotland from any incidence or spread of infection or contamination which presents or could present significant harm to human health in Scotland, not just Covid”.
More than 30 potential measures are being considered, including “prohibiting or limiting numbers at gatherings”; introducing lockdown restrictions; requiring face coverings; closing schools; and allowing the early release of prison inmates.
In some cases, the government’s consultation document says it is seeking to bring legislation into line with England and Wales.
And it may well be that some uncontroversial ‘emergency’ measures, like allowing virtual public meetings and greater use of electronic documents, are simply an example of how the pandemic has accelerated progress into the Internet Age.
But while Scotland and the UK as a whole did not perhaps react as quickly and as capably as they should have done when the pandemic began – with panicked decisions such as sending elderly hospital patients into care homes with first testing them for Covid – this was largely because politicians failed to recognise the true scale and nature of the threat, rather than a lack of legislation already on the books.
The power to prevent public gatherings and introduce lockdowns is an extremely Draconian one and it was only accepted by the public because of the severity of the threat posed by Covid.
Judging whether any future threat warrants similar action has to be a matter for our democratically elected representatives in parliament to decide, rather than the government. Handing such powers to ministers of the future – of whatever party they may be – to deal with disease outbreaks that may not be as serious as Covid would potentially be open to abuse for political purposes.
The government should certainly consult on emergency laws that could be introduced in the event of a Covid sequel, but there is no particular reason why they should not stay on the shelf, awaiting swift approval by MSPs for a temporary period, until that grim day arrives.