This research briefing deals with the provisions in the Coronavirus Bill which concern emergency powers and national security. This briefing paper has been updated to reflect changes made to the Bill in the House of Commons.

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The Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 was presented to Parliament on 19 March 2020. This is a piece of emergency legislation; it completed all its Commons stages on 22 March 2020. The Bill is being considered by the Lords and is expected to return to the House of Commons on the 25 March 2020.

This briefing paper is one of a collection of Commons Library briefings on the Coronavirus Bill (the Bill). It deals with the emergency powers provisions in the Bill. The other briefing papers, dealing with other parts of the Bill and general background, are available on the Commons Library website (Coronavirus Bill: Overview). 

Restricting movement and quarantining

Clause 49 introduces Schedule 21 which would provide public health officers with the power to quarantine those who have tested positive (or inconclusive) for coronavirus or those they reasonably suspect have the disease. It would also provide police officers and immigration officials with powers to take people they suspect have coronavirus to be tested or assessed by public health officers.

Clause 50 introduces Schedule 22 which would provide each of the UK governments with the power to issue directions prohibiting any event or gathering. It would also provide UK governments with the power to close or restrict access to any premises.

Taken together, clauses 49 and 50 would provide each of the UK governments with wide-ranging powers to restrict the freedom of movement of citizens in order to prevent the spread of the virus. However, there are no powers in the Bill which would allow directions to be issued requiring individuals to have prior permission or good reason to leave their homes. Neither would the Bill give the police or immigration officials powers to enforce elongated quarantines of people who have not been assessed for the virus by public health officers.

Port closures

Clause 50 would enable the Secretary of State to direct a port operator to temporarily close a port where it becomes impossible to ensure adequate border security, as a result of the impact of coronavirus on border force personnel. Failure to comply with an order would be a summary offence. Counter-terrorism legislation provides specific powers for designated officers at ports and airports to stop, search, question and detain people who may be engaged in or planning terrorist acts or hostile activity on behalf of another state.

Investigatory powers

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 governs the process for issuing warrants to law enforcement and security and intelligence agencies to intercept communications; gain access to communications data; and engage in equipment interference (hacking into devices). Warrants generally require the approval of an independent Judicial Commissioner before coming into force, except in urgent cases, where approval may be sought subsequently. Clauses 22 and 23 of the Bill would allow for the appointment of temporary Commissioners, where necessary as a result of coronavirus, and to extend the timeframe for gaining approval for warrants issued in urgent cases.

Biometric data

A new clause 24 was added to the Bill by a Government amendment in the Commons. It would enable the Secretary of State to make regulations extending the length of time that biometric samples – fingerprints and DNA – are able to be retained for national security purposes.

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-8858
  • Authors: Jennifer Brown, Joanna Dawson, John Woodhouse, Melanie Gower
  • Topics: Crime, Institutions, Police

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