Slow-moving Commons debates the key issues of March

By John Crace

Just as Matt Hancock was explaining at the Downing Street press conference how he hoped his test, track and trace app might work to ease the lockdown, parliament was finally getting the opportunity to debate the coronavirus regulations the government had put in place back in March. Though debate might be putting it a little strongly. The tech in the new virtual Commons isn’t up to allowing any interventions, so what we actually got was each MP making an uninterrupted five-minute speech.

The junior health minister Edward Argar appeared slightly bewildered by the need for even an ersatz debate. And you could rather see his point. The real key date here is this Thursday, when the government is obliged to say whether it plans to maintain the emergency powers or introduce some form of relaxation, so being asked to justify the current regime that had been in place for six weeks and might change in a few days’ time felt a wee bit pointless.

But futility has never been a stumbling block for the Commons in the past and Argar was determined that it should not be now. If there were protocols to be observed then he was the man for the job. So he mumbled on for 10 minutes telling everyone exactly what they already knew.

Something called the coronavirus had become a pandemic, he said, and the government had been forced to introduce a whole load of civil liberty restrictions to protect the nation’s health. And though ministers were determined that lockdown would end at the earliest opportunity, he didn’t want to pre-empt anything the prime minister might say later in the week. Largely because not even Boris Johnson is entirely sure what Boris Johnson is going to do next. It turns out that following the science can be quite confusing. Not to say expensive.

Replying for Labour, the shadow junior health minister Justin Madders didn’t have a great deal to add. He had no problems with any of the measures the government had put in place, he just wished the opposition had been allowed to agree with what had been done rather earlier in the game.

He also pleaded that when the prime minister did say something new, either on Thursday or Sunday – it appears that one of the new regulations is for the 21-day limit on emergency powers is to be contingent on Boris’s own interpretation of three weeks – that Labour would be given an opportunity to scrutinise it before it became law. Argar just shrugged and smiled. Even he’s not being kept in the loops, so there was sod all chance of anyone on the opposition benches being given a say.

The only real pushback came from the Tory backbenches. Though everyone was keen to point out that they had been happy to accept “extreme and unusual” measures up till now, many Conservative MPs are now beginning to get twitchy. Both about the impact of the lockdown and the threat to civil liberties. They sense there’s a mood in their constituencies that a growing number of people are no longer quite so keen on saving the lives of 1% of the population if it means they lose their jobs and can’t go out and see their friends and families.

Not that they all expressed that sentiment quite so bluntly. Graham Brady merely suggested that maybe some people had just been a little too willing to stay at home rather than go to work – so fortunate that Sir Graham doesn’t work in a call centre where social distancing isn’t rigorously enforced – and that old people should be allowed to decide on what level of risk they were prepared to accept. He hasn’t quite grasped the fact that an old person on a midnight flit might actually infect someone else.

Other Conservatives were rather more forthright. Charles Walker insisted that the economy was our lives. An unusually Marxist analysis from a free-market capitalist. And if thousands of businesses went under and unemployment rose to 12%, then none of those still around would have a life worth living. What was needed was a frank, honest and open debate about whether it was worth trading lives now for lives tomorrow. It was fairly clear which side of the coronavirus equation Charles sees himself on.

Steve Baker, whose hair is growing upwards at such an alarming rate he now resembles Marge Simpson, was mostly concerned that the police should be given the correct guidance on how to enforce any regulations. In particular, he was disturbed that some forces had been arresting people for not sweating sufficiently when they were out on their bicycles. What we needed in any new guidance, he said, was a form of Highway Code. There were some rules that must be observed and some that only should. That did rather presuppose the government had a clue what rules it was going to impose. Let alone how to categorise them.

For full-on libertarian psycho, we had to wait for Marcus Fysh. He’d rather die a free man in his grave, than live like a puppet or a slave. Under no circumstances should health be allowed to trump liberty. And from what he’d heard, Matt Hancock’s “test, track and trace” app was a non-starter, because it relied on centralised data. So it should be dumped before it had been given a chance. And it was no coincidence that the coronavirus had started in China, one of the world’s largest surveillance states. So there. Being afraid is not normal, he said. Except it is. What’s not normal is being Marcus Fysh.