UK lawmakers grumble but renew sweeping govt COVID-19 powers

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons to attend his weekly Prime Minister's Questions in London, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON – British lawmakers voted Wednesday to renew the government’s sweeping powers to impose emergency restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic, though many slammed the way Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration has used them.

Legislators are increasingly unhappy about the government’s handling of the pandemic, which has seen Britain go from a national lockdown imposed in March to a patchwork of local measures of varying stringency, which Johnson and other ministers have sometimes struggled to explain.

Britain's official virus death toll has passed 42,000 — the highest in Europe — and the country is seeing a second spike in new cases.

But there is little lawmakers can do about the government's response because of the powers that Parliament granted the government six months ago in the Coronavirus Act.

Lindsay Hoyle, the impartial Speaker of the House of Commons, said the government had treated lawmakers with “contempt,” with new laws being brought in without scrutiny and measures sometimes published just hours before taking effect. That created travel chaos for Britons on holiday this summer, as many had to rush home in the middle of their vacations when the government changed its quarantine rules.

“I am looking to the government to remedy a situation I regard as completely unsatisfactory,” Hoyle said.

The powers in the act must be renewed every six months, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was too soon to lift them now.

“This act is still needed to keep people safe,” Hancock told lawmakers. He said the law contained “extraordinary measures, but they remain temporary, time-limited and proportional to the threat we face.”

Johnson’s Conservative government has faced growing criticism from its own lawmakers, who feel restrictions on daily life brought in to slow the spread of the virus are stifling the economy. Dozens of Conservative legislators had threatened to rebel against the measures, but were assuaged by a government promise that Parliament will get a vote on future “significant” national measures.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the opposition Labour Party accuses the government of botching the battle against the virus and failing to protect lives.

“We have ended up with one of the highest death rates in the world and on the verge of one of the deepest recessions,” said Labour home-affairs spokesman Nick Thomas-Symonds.

“Things cannot go on as they are,” he said, al though he added that Labour would not vote to end the powers. They were renewed on a 330-24 vote in the House of Commons.

The number of new hospitalizations for COVID-19 and virus deaths in Britain are rising again, although both remain far below their springtime peak. There were 7,108 new infections reported Wednesday and 71 virus-related deaths, the same number of deaths confirmed the day before.

Johnson said it was too soon to say whether restrictions introduced in recent weeks were working. The government has barred people across the country from meeting in groups of more than six and banned millions of residents in northern England from mixing with people they don’t live with.

“I wish I could tell you tonight that the impact of this package has already begun to appear, but it will take time to feed through,” the prime minister said at a televised news conference.

Johnson said tougher measures could be coming, if the numbers don't start to decline.

“If the evidence requires it, we will not hesitate to take further measures that would, I’m afraid, be more costly than the ones we have put into effect now,” he said.


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