Javid defends Covid response amid claims decisions felt like ‘fait accompli’

The Health Secretary addressed MPs on how the Coronavirus Act 2020 became law.

24 February 2022

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has defended the Government’s Covid response against accusations that MPs were unable to scrutinise controversial provisions and were left “shouting through the letterbox” of Number 10.

Mr Javid said ministers had to “act quickly” in the early stages of the pandemic, but he accepted that ensuring Parliament can properly debate emergency legislation may be one of the “lessons learned” from the crisis.

The Health Secretary made the comments as he addressed the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the Coronavirus Act ahead of its two-year anniversary.

He said he does not “envisage” ever having to bring back provisions in the Act which are set to expire at midnight on March 24 because of the progress made in fighting the pandemic.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “At times, when it’s come to announcements in Parliament, there is a view among some parliamentarians that actually it’s almost been like peeping through the keyhole or shouting through the letterbox of Number 10 rather than participating in the decision-making process of such fundamental issues.”

Medic in PPE
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said decisions had to be made at pace in the early stages of the pandemic (PA)

The Labour MP said decisions which had a “major impact” on the public had at times seemed like a “fait accompli”.

The SNP’s Ronnie Cowan asked: “You don’t think it would have been preferable at some point to have had a wider debate in Parliament on some of those provisions?”

Mr Javid replied: “I see what you’re getting at and I think that should be part of the lessons learned.

“I guess your point is that whilst the overall Act is needed, could individual provisions, could Parliament have more say on them… even if it’s not all the provisions, some of the more, let’s say, controversial ones, and I think it’s a very fair point to think about that now.”

The Government had to “act quickly” and strike a balance between enabling parliamentary debate on the laws and rolling out measures to protect the British public at pace, he said.

He added the parliamentary process had not been “bypassed” entirely, with many provisions either expiring early on or being scrapped as a result of scrutiny from MPs.

Mr Javid gave the example of “quite draconian” powers to detain people with mental health issues which were never used but expired “very early on” in the pandemic.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle questioned why ministers had legislated on some of the measures in the Act in the first place, given only 27 pandemic-related provisions out of more than 500 were used.

He said organisations including St John Ambulance had told the committee they found it “detrimental” that some provisions, such as emergency volunteering leave, had not been triggered.

Mr Javid said he “wasn’t involved in the drafting of the Bill” but it was “understandable for the time that this was put together at speed, in an emergency situation” with limited information about the virus.

Several of the original provisions imposed under the Coronavirus Act 2020 have already expired.

But the Government wants to make four remaining provisions, which it says have “enabled innovations in the delivery of public services”, permanent, Mr Javid confirmed.

It plans to seek approval from Parliament and see the laws come into force over the spring and summer.

Among them are provisions which have allowed virtual hearings to take place for court cases, and where Covid is suspected to be the cause of death, coroners in England and Wales have been able to hear an inquest without a jury.

These are due to expire within six months and will each require a final six-month extension to “ensure there is no gap in the legislation that enables public service delivery”.

Mr Javid confirmed the Government will seek to make some of the measures permanent in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.

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