Deputy Prime Minister John Swinney unveiled a public consultation on removing the March 2022 expiration date for a host of extraordinary powers, including the ability to impose closures, close schools and demand that people wear face coverings.
The controversial rules allowing the early release of more prisoners could also be extended, as well as the wider use of fines as an alternative to prosecution.
Mr Swinney insisted that measures which were no longer necessary would be removed, but argued that those which present ‘a demonstrable benefit to the people of Scotland’ should be retained to be used against Covid or any other element considered as a threat to public health.
He argued that the consultation was “an opportunity to sustain the changes that have been welcomed by people who now do not want to lose the transformations that have been innovative” during the pandemic.
Uneasiness with “extended powers”
However, Scottish Tories questioned why the SNP government had to retain unprecedented powers when restrictions were relaxed following the success of the UK’s vaccination program.
Murdo Fraser, their shadow secretary for Covid recovery, said the move would allow SNP ministers to impose “sweeping powers on society on a whim” and accused them of evading consultation while Holyrood was on vacation.
MSPs passed two emergency coronavirus laws last year, both in one-day session, which aimed to help the country fight the virus.
The new laws made changes to the justice system, including allowing early release of detainees if the virus caused problems within the prison administration, as well as in the rental industry and the functions of government agencies.
Before going on summer vacation, the MSPs agreed to a six-month extension of powers until March next year with the possibility of a further extension until September 2022.
But the consultation document argued that some powers should be made permanent and significantly expanded so that they no longer apply only to the coronavirus.
“It seems likely that Covid will not be the last infectious disease or public health threat Scotland will face,” he said.
‘As a result, and based on the experience of managing Covid, the government considers that building public health resilience in the future requires action to ensure a permanent set of powers that will enable Scottish ministers to fight against any type of infectious disease or contamination which can represent a significant threat to health. “
Unveiling the plans, Mr Swinney, who is also Covid recovery secretary, said: ‘Although the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, its urgency has forced the utilities we rely on to adapt and continue and to continue to deliver, driving the pace of digital adoption, and in some cases, more efficient ways of working.
“As we enter the recovery phase, we now have a unique opportunity to reinvent the way health and social care, learning and justice services can be designed and delivered according to life and needs. of the people who use them. “
“Not wanting to give up control”
But Fraser said: “These powers were meant to be temporary measures to deal with the pandemic. The fact that SNP ministers are now seeking to make many of them permanent is a clear sign that they are unwilling to give up their control over people’s lives.
“It is a dangerous path to take to allow ministers to implement sweeping powers over society on a whim. “
Jo Bisset, organizer of parent group UsForThem Scotland, said: “The only thing a government should put into law is a strong guarantee that schools will never close again. “
The 12-week consultation proposed to make permanent the power of ministers to close schools, arguing that action may be needed to “control transmission” in future pandemics “given the large gatherings of children and youth involved. “.
He said that “the broad nature of the powers will give ministers the flexibility to take the necessary actions to deal with the specific circumstances of the health emergency.”
However, he insisted that “important guarantees” would remain, including that any order should “apply for a defined period and be subject to regular review”.
SNP ministers also want to make permanent their power to issue regulations on the protection of public health, for example by limiting the number of people in gatherings, introducing locks and requiring face coverings.
The consultation said the broad powers they want “would allow Scotland to respond flexibly and proportionately to specific threats as they arise”. He also argued that similar powers are already enshrined in law in England and Wales.
While the backlog of legal proceedings is expected to take until 2025 to be cleared, he proposed that digital and remote proceedings continue to include those with the “default” choice to attend by “electronic means”. .
However, the courts would have the power “to require a person to appear physically in a particular case”. The newspaper warned that failure to keep virtual proceedings would “seriously undermine” efforts to clear a huge backlog of sentences in the community.
SNP ministers freed 348 criminals in May last year to reduce pressure on prisons and reduce the risk of epidemics in the prison system. The newspaper argued that they should have this permanent power to take “necessary and proportionate” measures.