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The government is hoping to pass all stages of their 329-page emergency bill through the House of Commons on Monday.

MPs have begun debate on the bill in Parliament.

With cross-party support for the urgency and general principles of the new laws, progress of the Coronavirus Bill is not under threat. But there will still be disagreements and pressure on ministers.

So what are MPs being asked to approve?

Together, the 87 clauses give the government wide-ranging powers, unlike any other recent legislation.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has stressed that the powers in the bill would only be used “when strictly necessary” and would remain in force only for as long as required to respond to the crisis.

Workforce

Ministers want to make sure there are as many people as possible in the key jobs. One way to do that is to make it easier for former health and care professionals to return to work.

The bill also sets out how people can become emergency volunteers. It will allow employees to take unpaid leave and creates a fund to compensate them for loss of earnings.

Easing pressure

There are multiple sections aimed at reducing the pressure on other frontline sectors, for example by relaxing rules around detention under mental health laws and increasing the use of audio and video links in courts.

This category of measures shows just how wide the subject matters range.

Organisations could be required to provide space or resources for the storage or management of dead bodies, while rules relating to investigatory powers will be relaxed while the law is in force.

Limiting contact

One of the more high-profile measures in the bill is the power to restrict events and shut down premises such as pubs.

On Friday evening, the prime minister told pubs to close, along with other places where people gather in the same space. He did not go into detail on to what extent this will be enforced, but this bill will make the power of the state clear.

If UK and devolved ministers decide an event or venue poses a threat to public health, the owner of a venue or an organiser of the event can be forced to cancel, close down or restrict access.

Failure to do so could result in a fine.

Controlling borders

Once the bill passes, officials will have the power to close the borders in the event that the Border Force is under intense pressure due to staffing shortages.

It also puts into law powers to isolate or detain individuals who are judged to be a risk to containing the spread of Covid-19.

Sick pay

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, there has been pressure on the government to support workers who are unable to work during the crisis.

To support businesses, the bill will allow employers to reclaim statutory sick pay funds from HMRC to help with the burden of increased staff absence. For workers, it will scrap the three-day waiting period so that they can receive the payments from the day they stop working.

Are MPs concerned about the bill?

MPs have tabled over 30 amendments to the bill – including one from Harriet Harman Labour MP and chair of the Committee on Human Rights.

The bill currently allows for the new powers to expire after two years. Ms Harman’s amendment called for that to be brought down to six months. It could have caused problems for the government as it had cross-party support.

Under her proposals, the government could extend the powers for another six months but only with the consent of MPs.

Accepting their arguments, the government has now said it will introduce its own amendment which would ensure the powers have to be renewed every six months.

Labour’s Chris Bryant had also been hoping to increase parliamentary scrutiny of the powers. His amendment would have required status reports on the main new powers every two months. These reports would have needed to be approved by MPs for them to remain in place.

However, following the government’s amendment, Mr Bryant says there is no longer any need for his proposal.

Will anything be changed?

Labour has made it clear it will not oppose the bill – this means there is unlikely to be a vote after the main debate. Those proposing amendments will probably not want to push votes, but would hope the government makes further concessions that can be supported across political divides.

Don’t forget, any legislation has to pass to the House of Lords once it has cleared the Commons. The government has no majority on the red benches, so peers could cause some problems if they want to make changes to the bill.

If they do, this would probably happen on Wednesday, at Report Stage. It would then return to MPs on Thursday.

Either way, it should be signed into law by the end of Thursday, giving ministers powers that would be unprecedented in normal times.



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