AS Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock continued to dither and delay – publicly changing their minds over the easing of lockdown restrictions and about when England’s lockdown should end – over the course of the press conferences last week, they omitted to mention that behind the scenes they’d just extended coronavirus lockdown laws.
A new ‘regulation’ that gives local councils in England the power to close pubs, restaurants, shops and public spaces until 17 July was spotted by the Telegraph’s Christopher Hope.
Parliament and the rest of the journalists meant to hold the Government ‘to account’ during these press conferences were once again, it seems, asleep at the wheel.
The change made to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No.3) Regulations 2020, part of a review of the third lockdown by Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier this month, appears not to have been drawn to the attention of Parliament. Not debated, it was rubber-stamped along with a slew of other measures given inadequate time for debate.
According to the gov.uk website, this law is now meant to expire on July 17. Let’s not forget that this government has continually kept us in various forms of lockdown or restriction since March 2020. ‘Three weeks to flatten the curve’ continued months into the summer. After autumn ‘tiers’ Johnson promised Christmas would not be cancelled, only to call it off for London and the South East
So much for the Government’s desire to end this lockdown. You might be forgiven for believing that ministers now are diverting responsibility for their failed strategy by shifting it on to local councils to decide whether they should close pubs, restaurants, shops, and public spaces.
Or perhaps they are just buying time? Who knows they won’t extend these powers beyond July 17 – once more by stealth?
Whatever the reasoning, this is a terrible mistake. Granting local councils the go-ahead to close their local economies risks them becoming drunk on power, and press to retain these draconian powers in the future on whatever excuse. It’s a dangerous precedent. We’ve seen what Mark Drakeford, the first Minister of the Welsh Assembly, is capable of.
Local councils, mayors such as London’s Sadiq Khan and Westminster itself, have already done enough to destroy High Streets over the last decade, with astronomical business rates, emissions charges, and parking charges.
When I was a councillor, I tried to persuade my colleagues to introduce free parking to help my town’s High Street – only to find my plea fell on deaf ears. I fear that granting these powers to July 17 and perhaps beyond could inflict untold damage to local traders and businesses.
Debenhams, Top Shop and the Edinburgh Woollen Mill are some of the better-known names never now to open their doors again. How many more stores have to go? The latest restrictions have already been ruinous to small businesses.
Unemployment is a killer too, but one that targets the working-age population. The 2016 film The Big Short, a drama which follows the lives of different characters who predicted the 2008 recession, attracted attention for its startling assertion. ‘For every one per cent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die’. Can it be true, fact checkers asked. American academic researcher Dr Harvey Brennan claims it was – it and that international research demonstrates that it remains a good rule of thumb, although others have disputed it.
What is unarguably the case is the profoundly damaging impact of unemployment on individual lives – from marriage break-up to heart attacks and strokes, from low self-esteem, depression, to anxiety and alcoholism. Lives made worse in real and tangible ways.
Do local councils, empowered by a blinkered central government, really want that type of blood on their hands? Do they want, under the cover of Covid, to close the High Street forever, desolating their city centres to make way for the compulsory digital age?
For the sake of ensuring local post-lockdown economic recovery and to prevent a power grab by councils, pressure must be put on the Government to scrap this iniquitous regulation now.
If Boris Johnson and Co are serious about the need for this devolution of extreme powers to local councils, then at least come clean about it instead of operating by stealth.