Covid: Why is Nicola Sturgeon's government trying to railroad through extension of emergency lockdown powers? – Murdo Fraser MSP

There are few things infuriating the public more at present than the lack of consistency from the Scottish Government when it comes to Covid restrictions.
Nicola Sturgeon has been inconsistent over the Covid restrictions and now her government wants to extend emergency powers months before they are due to run out (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Nicola Sturgeon has been inconsistent over the Covid restrictions and now her government wants to extend emergency powers months before they are due to run out (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon has been inconsistent over the Covid restrictions and now her government wants to extend emergency powers months before they are due to run out (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

At the same time as we see nursery graduations being cancelled, and parents not being permitted to attend children’s sports days in the open air, SNP ministers are relaxed about the Uefa fan zone in Glasgow, where up to 3,000 supporters can gather at one time to eat, drink and celebrate together, with (as is obvious from our television screens) little regard for social distancing.

At the same time, we see the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, bringing in a travel ban on Scots visiting Manchester, raising the ire of the local Mayor Andy Burnham in the process, whilst at the same time there are no restrictions on travel in and out of Dundee which has a similar level of Covid cases.

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And the same First Minister was quick to condemn the behaviour of Rangers fans in George Square in Glasgow, celebrating the club’s historic 55th league title, but had nothing to say when it came to thousands of Scotland fans travelling to London for last Friday’s national team fixture, with a small minority in both cases letting their colleagues down.

Across the board, the Scottish public have complied well with the unprecedented restrictions put on our lives as a consequence of Covid. But seeing some being able to flout the rules without penalty, and elsewhere clear inconsistencies in the application of restrictions, inevitably leads to a questioning of why we should obey instructions when they don’t appear to apply uniformly.

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The restrictions on our lives introduced by the parliaments at Westminster and Holyrood last spring were justified on the basis that there was a need to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by the Covid crisis.

In that respect, they were the right step to take. The real fears that we saw last spring about intensive care units running out of space, Covid cases having to be turned away from hospitals, and an alarmingly high death rate, did not materialise.

In the last 15 months enormous progress has been made. The success of the UK vaccination programme means that there is now substantial protection in place for a majority of the population, and certainly the most vulnerable groups. By the middle of summer, all those who want to be vaccinated should have had the opportunity. And that means that Covid is no longer the serious threat to health that it was this time last year.

Against that backdrop, it is right to question for how long the restrictions we still have in place should continue, and indeed whether the extraordinary powers granted to ministers to restrict our lives should persist.

The question is a very timely one, as this week the Scottish Parliament discusses the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) Bill, aiming to extend powers granted to Scottish ministers in spring last year, and currently due to expire at the end of September, by another six months, with provision for a further six months extension thereafter.

What this means is that the extraordinary and unprecedented powers granted to Scottish ministers to deal with the Covid-19 crisis could last for a period of two-and-a-half years from when they were first granted. That would be truly remarkable, particularly in the context of the good progress that has been made with vaccinations.

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There are measures in this Bill that seem sensible. There is a huge backlog of cases in the criminal justice system, and if time limits were not being extended then some criminals could well escape justice. If planning permissions could not be extended, those who had hoped to have works completed, but were delayed due to Covid restrictions, might face the prospect of their permissions lapsing too soon.

But there are other areas where there will be serious concerns about temporary provisions being extended. Scottish ministers are seeking to extend their right to acquire care homes in emergency situations; a provision which caused a great deal of concern in the care sector when it was first introduced.

It is hard to see how a blanket power to release prisoners early in the event of a Covid outbreak can now be justified when it has not had to be used to date, and the prison population must now be protected by vaccinations to a much greater extent than was the case previously.

Perhaps the greatest concern with this Bill is the speed with which it is being introduced. Going through the Scottish Parliament under emergency powers, it was only published on Friday afternoon.

There has been no time for public consultation, and very little time for parliamentary scrutiny. No committee at the Parliament has been asked to consider the Bill in detail, to take evidence, and produce a report on its provisions. And yet, over the course of just three days, Parliament will be expected to consider, amend, and, if appropriate, pass this Bill into law.

Where is the urgency? Holyrood is sitting for the month of September, and this Bill could easily be brought back in the first week of the autumn sitting, providing time for broader consultation and discussion over the summer as to whether the powers contained were necessary and appropriate. It would also be much clearer as to the Covid statistics at the time, and whether the extension of these powers was absolutely necessary.

I am concerned that the SNP Government is trying to rush these provisions through Parliament in the last few sitting days prior to the summer recess, when there is no necessity for this to be done.

If we are to see public confidence in ongoing restrictions, we do need to have proper debate and engagement around these powers, and that will simply not be possible with this Bill being railroaded through on such a short timescale.

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Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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