Boris Johnson

It has felt like a very, very long six months. But that’s how long it is since March, when the House of Lords, its older members absent, its atmosphere distinctly embattled, rattling with gossip about the latest person to fall ill, passed the Coronavirus Act.

A great outcry forced the government away from its original plan of leaving it to operate unchecked for two years, and Health Minister Lord Bethell today said he thought the six-month review was necessary. It was nice to see the change of mind.

I was also glad that the minister acknowledged we “can’t say when the crisis will be over”. It makes a refreshing change from the WWI-style boosterism of “over by Christmas”, for we know what disastrous impact that approach had a century ago, and, I fear, has done great damage today.

It is useful if we think back to the mood six months ago as we passed the Bill. The cover message from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – “Don’t panic” – almost seemed projected on the chamber walls in large friendly letters.

But today Labour’s Baroness Chakrabarti referred to the heavy heart many of us felt at the swingeing provisions of the Act at the time it was passed. Six months after we passed the Act, the serious human rights damage and unnecessary attacks on peaceful protest are clear, as reflected by my fellow Green peer Jenny Jones.

We have learnt a great deal about the virus that we didn’t know in March – although there is much we still do not know – but the mood of determination to pull together, to applaud our NHS, to shop for vulnerable neighbours, the promise from the Chancellor to do “whatever it takes” has dissolved, And the government must take significant responsibility.

“Whatever it takes” fell apart as a promise sadly quickly. Local government, huge numbers of self-employed people, those caught in the new starter furlough, quickly found that it was not for them.

And despite the obvious risks, and still high levels of the virus around the nations – a “stay home” message pivoted straight to “get out, mingle and spend money”. It is worth reflecting that it is just one month since “Eat Out to Help Out” ended.

But let’s look forward, to the next six months, and look at three elements of this act or elements that might be in this act.

First: Elections – The section of the Act allowing delay is still in force. The government needs to publish a plan for elections to go ahead safely in 2021. The election provisions in the Act should be repealed on this basis.

Referring to elections Lord Bethell said “we hope for normal service to be resumed next May”. Well I say don’t “hope”, but plan.

Second: the economy: What is the government’s long term economic plan? Where is the understanding that we will never return to business as usual? And that nor should we want to, given the poverty, the human misery and environmental destruction that underpinned it?

Where is the thinking of how this is a chance to support small independent businesses to set up and flourish in newly peopled communities – what were once commuter centres, emptied for most of the time, are now humming – outdoor cafes, mobile vans, print and office service centres, computer support – people working from home or near home – something like a 15-minute community that is a social and environmental ideal? That could be “levelling up” by spreading out economic activity to every community in the land.

Thirdly education: I was reading this morning an email from a desperate home-schooled A-Level student left high and dry this year. What’s the government doing to ensure another group of students won’t face the same fate next year? SATs should be abandoned now (as More Than a Score is calling for), a robust, effective, course-work and school assessment scheme brought in for GCSEs and A-levels, BTECs and other relevant qualifications.

Former Chancellor Lord Lamont referred to folly of just “waiting for the cavalry” in the form of a vaccine, yet that’s what seems to be happening.

We should be seeing significant elements of this bill repealed now, replaced by a plan, a way forward.

I hesitate to interfere with the words of the late great Douglas Adams, but they do need amending for the current time: we could project on the walls of No 10 in large friendly letters “stop panicking and plan”.

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Image credit: Chatham House – Creative Commons