You wouldn’t normally consider zoos to be at the heart of political debate but their treatment epitomises the government’s disordered approach to the Covid-19 epidemic. MPs are debating coronavirus restrictions in the House of Commons today as new easing of the lockdown comes into effect with, amongst other things, the reopening of non-essential retail. We won’t be debating whether it is the right time to reopen these shops, however. We will be discussing changes that were actually introduced a fortnight earlier. These include allowing elite athletes to train and the easing of restrictions so that six people can meet outside. They also include new restrictions so that, for the first time, zoos and safari parks amongst other venues are required to close.
The first lockdown measures were introduced back in March in response to Covid-19. The initial regulations needed to be hurriedly introduced in response to the rapidly rising number of infections and were not debated until some six weeks after they were introduced – but now that parliament is up and running again, time should be provided to ensure that any future changes to the lockdown have democratic consent before they are introduced. The chaotic nature of the government’s approach is best highlighted by the fact that on the same day we are debating these regulations, which close down zoos and safari parks, they will in fact be reopening after a government U-turn last week. We are left with the mess of a government introducing laws in parliament that it has already said it won’t be following.
This is now the third debate on the lockdown rules taking place long after the rules have changed. As Keir Starmer has said, they are not making it easy for us to work constructively with them. This is not just a procedural issue either; the rule of law matters. We cannot have a government that – even in these extraordinary times – believes it is standard practice to get parliamentary approval only when convenient. When Matt Hancock suggested he would ask the Treasury to “look at” all the fines issued under the lockdown rules where childcare was an issue, during the height of the Dominic Cummings scandal, he showed just how little regard the Tories have to due process and the rule of law.
We know that in order for the economic damage to be mitigated, the relaxation of the lockdown must be done as soon as is possible – but do it too soon and we risk a second surge in infections that threatens to undo all the sacrifices made to date. The government has been extremely coy about providing the scientific advice on which they are basing their decisions; the scientific advisory group for emergencies’ advice is, at last, being released – but weeks after the event and in the meantime various experts are popping up on TV to warn against a relaxation. Most worryingly, there are now concerns that experts’ opinions are being vetted before they are allowed to appear on the Downing Street podium.
No evidence has been produced to show how the government has met its own five tests for relaxing the lockdown rules, which are particularly important when the Joint Biosecurity Council has not reduced its threat level. The government is required to review the impact of the legislation but has never released those reviews. We know, for example, that people from BAME backgrounds are far more likely to be fined under the regulations, yet we see no evidence that the potentially discriminatory impact of these regulations is being considered.
This is before we even consider whether the testing and tracing system is working properly. One of the government’s own chief scientific advisors said it is critical that this is working properly before we have any relaxation of the lockdown – and only yesterday the World Health Organisation said the same. But we know that it is failing to test thousands of people with the virus, a third of those tested are not being contacted and we don’t have a date for when the ‘vital’ app will be ready.
More than 12 weeks since lockdown began, it is time government really began to show that it can develop a structured, evidence-based, coherent approach. The lack of grip on detail is astonishing, though perhaps no more than we can expect from a government led by a Prime Minister who missed five successive Cobra meetings at the start of the crisis.