British MPs have voted unanimously to extend the emergency legislation for lockdown measures; to control the spread of coronavirus for another six months, until September.
In a House of Commons vote on Thursday night; the Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed by 484 votes to 76, a majority of 408.
An expected rebellion within the ruling Conservative Party ranks saw 36 Tory backbenchers vote against; the government legislation in opposition of the continuing curbs on freedoms; and 21 Labour MPs as well as the Liberal Democrats also voted against the extension.
“I cannot answer whether we will be retiring it in six months. My preference would be yes, but given the last year; I think a prediction would be hasty,” UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs ahead of the vote on the emergency powers; which must be reviewed every six months by law.
The minister said that 12 provisions in the legislation were no longer needed because of progress; that had been made in dealing with the deadly virus.
These include easing some responsibilities on the social care sector, laws governing the retention of biometric data for health and security purposes; and obligations on businesses that work in the food supply chain.
“Although this act remains essential and there are elements of it which we are seeking the renewal of; we have always said we will only retain powers as long as they are necessary,” he said.
The act was described as “draconian” by several MPs ahead of the vote, with Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group; dubbing it “excessive and disproportionate”.
“The libertarian in me is also trying to protect people’s fundamental right to life and their ability to live their lives normally;” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said ahead of the vote.
“And the only way really to restore that for everybody is for us to beat the disease; and the best path to freedom is down the cautious but irreversible road map that we’ve set out – that’s what the freedom lover wants,” he said.
As part of the Commons vote this week, MPs also approved the regulations underpinning the steps to ease restrictions from March 29; – as laid out in Johnson’s “roadmap” out of lockdown.
The Coronavirus Act had been fast-tracked through Parliament back in March last year to bring in emergency powers; to respond to the pandemic as the UK went into its first stay-at-home lockdown.
The government has said that while the legal extension runs until September; it hopes to be able to lift most restrictions on gatherings and travel by June 21 as part of its roadmap.
The special powers under the Act include allowing the emergency registration of healthcare professionals such as nurses; the power to temporarily close schools and prevent tenants from being evicted.