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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 24th March 2020.

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Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Less than a week ago, I updated members in the chamber on the introduction by the United Kingdom Government of the Coronavirus Bill and set out the measures contained in the bill and how it will assist and support our responses to the current pandemic.

On Friday, the Scottish Government lodged a legislative consent motion in respect of the bill with the Parliament, and, this afternoon, members will debate the motion and will be asked to give consent to the bill on the recommendation of the Scottish Government.

In my statement last week, I acknowledged that the timings around the development, introduction and scrutiny of the bill had been, and will continue to be, extremely challenging. The UK Government’s stated ambition was to have the bill receive royal assent by the end of this month. That has now been accelerated in view of the current scenario, and the intention is that all stages of the bill will be completed by tomorrow, when royal assent will hopefully be given.

Last week, I gave a commitment to the Scottish Government that, after discussion across the Parliament, we will institute appropriate reporting on how and when the powers in the bill have been used by the Scottish Parliament. In addition, for our own further emergency coronavirus legislation next week, I intend to embed in law such reporting and renewal every six months, including our use of UK provisions in the UK bill. Since our discussions last week, I am glad to say that the UK Government has heeded the concerns that have been widely raised on the six months issue, and I understand that it is implementing such a provision in its bill.

The bill is the result of a great deal of intensive work between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. We must continue that mutual co-operation as we work collectively, as part of our four-nations approach, to confront the extraordinary public health and economic challenges that are posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, we will also take the actions that we regard as necessary for the special circumstances in Scotland. It is to those actions that I now turn.

As the First Minister has made clear, in creating the additional powers in this bill, we did not—and do not—mean to use them automatically. We will be guided by decisions at the appropriate time, and any enforcement action that we take will be taken as a result of the situation that pertains here, in Scotland. Of course, since I gave the statement last Thursday, the Prime Minister and the First Minister have, as part of our response to the virus, set out further social distancing measures, the latest to have been implemented with immediate effect from midnight last night. The restrictions that are now in place will be difficult, sometimes distressing, and they will always be strange to us. However, the new measures are for the protection of us all and they are essential if we are to slow down the spread of the virus.

From today, the message to all our citizens is clear: people must now stay at home. The more people who comply, the less impact there will be on the national health service, and fewer people will die. We are now clearly telling citizens those facts, and there is a very restricted list of permitted activities. Leaving the house is permitted in order to go shopping and for one form of exercise a day, but the exercise must be severely restricted and is expected to be undertaken alone or with a person’s household.

Leaving the house is permitted for any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person, and for travelling to and from work if it is absolutely necessary—I stress that it must be absolutely necessary—and the work cannot be done from home. We have been explicitly clear that, beyond those permitted activities, heavy restrictions now apply. All non-essential retail outlets will no longer be allowed to open; all social events, weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies are no longer permitted; and communal places such as libraries, playgrounds and places of worship will close. Funerals must be restricted to immediate family.

We will shortly issue a list of premises that are covered by the new measures, but we urge everyone to do the right thing now. Most have, but—I stress this again—we are committed to using the powers that are available to us, and we will do so. Therefore, as part of our response, we have taken the decision to commence, upon royal assent, the powers in the bill that will ensure that all necessary enforcement action can be taken to implement social distancing and restrictions on gatherings, events and operation of business activity without further delay. To do so, following the point at which the bill completes the parliamentary process and receives royal assent, which is likely to be tomorrow, we will immediately make regulations under the emergency procedure of the Parliament.

The regulations will be made under what is now schedule 19 of the bill, which confers the same powers on the Scottish Government that the UK Government already has under section 45C of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Those powers allow us to make emergency regulations if we believe that there is an urgent need for them. We believe that there is an urgent need, and we will make those regulations now. That means that the regulations will come into force immediately and will remain in force provided that they are approved by Parliament within 28 days of being made. We will therefore seek parliamentary approval for that timetable as soon as possible.

We will, of course, keep the regulations under constant review, in line with our scientific advice, and we will ensure that Parliament is kept informed of our legislative approach as things progress. I think that I am meeting Opposition spokespeople later this afternoon to talk about the next bill that we intend to introduce.

When I addressed members last week, I said that we must put in place what we need to

“do the right thing for everyone. We must take action to protect, enhance and strengthen not only our response but ourselves.”—[

Official Report

, 19 March 2020; c 62.]

The measures that we are taking are proportionate and essential.

Last week, I also drew attention to the fact that pandemics have been experienced before. Each time, there is fear, there is dread, there are difficult decisions, and—yes—there is death. However, there is also courage, hope and determination. We learn from those who have gone before us, because they made it through and they told the tale. We intend to do the same.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the relevant provisions of the Coronavirus Bill, introduced in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020, so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or alter the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers, should be considered by the UK Parliament.