MP Meg Hillier: ‘Coronavirus emergency bill is necessary for what’s soon going to hit the NHS and council services’

Members of the public get their daily exercise the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK

Members of the public get their daily exercise the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK in "lockdown" to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Adam Davy/ PA Wire - Credit: PA

Charities and human rights experts have warned that emergency legislation to tackle the coronavirus pandemic could put disabled and older people at risk – but MP Meg Hillier believes the move is necessary to deal with “what’s going to hit” the NHS and council services in the days ahead.

Labour MP Meg Hillier in the House of Commons. Picture: PA Images

Labour MP Meg Hillier in the House of Commons. Picture: PA Images - Credit: PA

An emergency bill giving sweeping powers to ban gatherings and to forcibly quarantine suspected coronavirus patients was debated in parliament yesterday and is expected to pass through the House of Lords later this week.

The Care Act will be suspended to remove councils’ legal duty to provide social care to vulnerable older people, disabled people, and care leavers moving into adult social care. This will theoretically allow councils to prioritise for those most at risk, in the event that adult social services becomes overwhelmed by surging demand or staff absences.

MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, Meg Hillier, has been contacted by plenty of concerned constituents, but believes ultimately the “draconian measures” are necessary.

She told the Gazette: “The point of the provision in theory is that if local authorities are massively stretched, they’d have to triage and make a judgement. Some people are afraid it will permanently water down disability rights, but that almost certainly can’t happen.

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“The main thing about the bill is the government wanted to do it for two years, but there’s no way we would allow draconian measures to be delivered without interruption.”

Although the bill will be in force for two years, it will be reviewed every six months. The 329-page bill has 78 clauses, and apparently was written in such a hurry that one of the paragraphs has been copied and pasted from an email sign-off stating “if you receive this in error”.

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“There is a lot still to work out if this bill goes through, but the bill will go through and it has to,” said Ms Hillier.

“This is within the context of what’s going to hit the NHS at the weekend and next week, and all the other auxilliary support services, like social care. Potentially people are going to be ill who deliver the services, and there is going to be a real dilution of services.

“The bill provides a framework which says to the council, ‘You are allowed to change what you are doing in law if you have to have reasonable grounds to do it’. The reasonable grounds are social workers are off sick, or there are no volunteers, and other people are not able to help.

“The measures are draconian, but the brutal reality is that if they go well under the current planning it’s going to be pretty dramatic. All councils are having to work up their death plans.”

Countries like France and Spain imposed strict lockdowns to deal with the raging pandemic several days ago, but the UK government has been criticised for being slow to act. Last week Boris Johnson merely advised people to stay indoors and pubs and restaurants were only ordered to close on Friday night. The nation was told last night everyone must stay at home apart from key workers, but even now people are allowed to go out and exercise daily.

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