The government’s emergency Coronavirus Act, passed at the end of March, contains the most draconian state powers that have ever been imposed on the British public in peacetime.

As we watch the violence and repression metered out against the uprising in the US, it is important to consider how our own government might use its new powers to both make the working class pay for the economic crisis, quell resistance and oppress black and minority communities.

The legislation was rushed through Parliament in three days with no opposition from the Labour Party. Only one compromise was negotiated to ensure the Act’s swift approval – instead of giving ministers a blank cheque for two years, MPs will now vote on whether to extend the emergency powers every six months.

Though the government says the legislative measures are essential to slowing the spread of Covid-19, some of its provisions have troubling implications for socialists and democrats. In this article we outline five ways the Coronavirus Act threatens workers and the need for a strategy of resistance.

  1. Ministers granted powers to rule by regulation

In the rush to get legislation passed, many of the Act’s provisions were sketched out only very roughly, leaving further detail to be filled out by government ministers through regulations which do not require parliamentary approval. The Act has massively expanded the government’s ability to rule without parliamentary scrutiny.

Areas in which the government has granted itself these powers include the compensation of emergency volunteers, the suspension of elections and referendums, and the provision of statutory sick pay to employers.

While these policy areas may not seem particularly nefarious in the context, new regulations with unforeseen consequences are often slipped out with little fanfare or notice, providing easy cover for a levelling down of rights.

Giving ministers the power to rule by regulation sets a dangerous precedent by increasing the power of the central government and depriving the opposition of any opportunity to scrutinise laws.

Given this government’s form on proroguing parliament to get its own way, we should resolutely oppose any further watering down of what little parliamentary opposition Keir Starmer is offering.

2. Strengthened police powers

The government has granted the police more repressive control over the population. New police powers fall broadly into two main categories – powers over those who are deemed to be “potentially infectious” and powers to prevent and restrict public gatherings.

Since the initial legislation was passed, fines for breaching social distancing guidelines have been introduced. Data analysis from Liberty and the Guardian has found BAME people are 54 per cent more likely to be fined. 

In the absence of a mass test-and-trace strategy, almost anyone can be categorised as “potentially infectious”; any such person may be held for screening and forced to provide biological samples. Anyone found to be infected or awaiting conclusive results may be detained for up to 28 days. They may also be required to provide contact details and undergo further screening and assessment.

The time limit for retention of fingerprint and DNA samples by the police has been extended, increasing the power of state surveillance and increasing the risks of misuse of sensitive personal data.

The police have also been granted sweeping powers to restrict and prevent public gatherings. While the aim of these powers is ostensibly to slow the spread of coronavirus throughout the population, workers should be concerned about the impact this will have on their ability to organise effective resistance to government policy. Collective resistance will be essential in the coming struggles over who will pay for the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, and emergency police powers are already being used to threaten health workers demanding a pay rise.

Workers must organise to defy the lockdown where action is necessary in order to demonstrate and strike, both during the pandemic and in its aftermath. We must not allow this legislation to be used as a weapon against the workers’ movement and should take our own social-distancing measures when protesting and picketing.

3. Assault on democratic rights

The local government and mayoral elections which were due to take place on 7 May 2020 have been postponed until 2021, and further powers have been granted to ministers allowing them to suspend any elections and referendums until 5 May 2021. Recall petitions of MPs have been suspended indefinitely.

Even if, now that the lockdown is being eased, local elections go ahead as scheduled, their outcomes will have very little impact on a government hell-bent on making the working class pay for the pandemic and economic crisis.

During a crisis, bourgeois governments are more than happy to sacrifice our supposedly sacrosanct liberal democratic rights. Parliamentary democracy is a matter of convenience, not necessity, for those at the top of our society.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, in an attempt to avoid accusations that it is scoring political points during a ‘national crisis’ is leaving opposition to the Tory media.

We must demand that Labour act in the interest of the working class. They should oppose austerity and demand that the rich pay for the crisis. We should organise as rank and file Labour members pressure the MPs, officials and councillors from below and democratise the party so that members decide policy.

Opposition to austerity from our MPs and councillors would rally a movement but to defeat the government the Labour and trade union movement will need to be an opposition on the streets and in the workplaces. From there, we can resist austerity measures, disrupt their implementation and force the government to back down.   

4. Eroding the rights of vulnerable people

The Coronavirus Act allows local authorities to ‘pause’ their statutory duties towards certain groups, particularly their social care responsibilities. If local authorities choose to make use of the newly permitted easements, they are no longer required to assess adults’, children’s or carers’ support needs, or to meet all eligible care and support needs. They also do not need to take account of adults’ accommodation preferences or to prevent loss or damage to property of adults being cared for away from home.

Protections from forced detainment and treatment under the Mental Health Act 1983 have been relaxed. Before the Coronavirus Act was passed, detaining someone under the Mental Health Act required two opinions from mental health professionals. Now, people can be detained based on a single professional recommendation. The Act also relaxes the duties of government bodies in relation to post-mortem inquests – the normal requirement that inquests must be held with a jury when the cause of death is suspected to be a disease does not apply to deaths caused by coronavirus.

The justification for these changes is the need to reduce pressure on local authority resources during the crisis, allowing them to prioritise services for those with the most urgent and acute needs, but their effect is to further disadvantage the most vulnerable in society.

The reality is that many councils have been failing to meet their statutory duties towards vulnerable people for years, with budgets and workforces eviscerated by Tory austerity. In many cases, taking away local authorities’ legal responsibilities is simply normalising already insufficient levels of public service provision.

Already Boris Johnson is warning of the imminent need for a public sector pay freeze. Legal cover for levelling down public services is just what the government needs to pave the way for its next round of cuts and privatisations, which it will attempt to justify with the need to pay off the ballooning coronavirus debt bill. Instead of a levelling down, the labour movement must fight for a levelling up of services by demanding the seizure of private assets and repurposing them for the public good.

5. Forcing workers to pay for the crisis

Even at this early stage in the unfolding economic crisis, major companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline are already calling for huge taxpayer-funded bailouts to save them from collapse. The government has provided billions in government-backed loans, tax windfalls, and wage subsidies to guarantee businesses’ profits.

These bailouts are not accompanied by any protections for the workforce or provisions for public control over the companies’ future direction. Instead, the funds are provided by way of one-sided “financial assistance” – effectively corporate welfare at the expense of the public.

To facilitate this, the Coronavirus Act contains provisions which lift legal limits on state support for businesses. Workers will be forced to pay for this “financial assistance” in years to come, either through another round of austerity or through quantitative easing and the resulting inflation, and yet the profits from industries saved by public money will go straight back into private pockets.

We say that we won’t pay for their crisis – now or tomorrow! The labour movement should demand that any company in receipt of public funds must guarantee the retention of their workforce. The government’s furlough scheme, which is effectively picking up the wage bill for a large portion of British industry, must similarly be linked to guaranteed job security for workers for a set time period. Any company which refuses to comply should be taken into public ownership.

We also need to ensure that banks, landlords, and the well-off also bear their share of the economic burden, through 100% tax on incomes over £150,000, confiscation of the property of those profiting from the crisis, fixed prices for all essential goods and raw materials under the control of trade unions and community solidarity committees, and an immediate ban on all outsourcing of workers.

How should workers respond?

The Coronavirus Act represents a giveaway to corporate interests coupled with an erosion of rights and protections for vulnerable groups. By supporting the Act, Labour has allowed the Conservative government to offload part of the blame for the consequences of the crisis. Labour’s support for the legislation reveals its true character – when push comes to shove it will always act to maintain the capitalist system rather than fight for a fundamental shift in class forces which opens the road to socialism.

Increasing repressive measures and levelling down rights in the name of “national interest” is an age-old tactic of ruling classes in crisis attempting to disarm the working class and deprive it of its greatest strength – a conscious understanding of its own role in the class struggle. We mustn’t be fooled.

In the coming months, turbulent struggles will decide who will pay for the unprecedented level of state expenditure pumped into the economy to stave off total collapse. It is essential that socialists resist any attempts by police to use the powers granted by the Act to prevent workers’ organisation and struggle by organising collective self-defence against the police.

We must also organise, defying the lockdown where necessary in order to protest and picket, to protect workers from unjustified detention and arbitrary treatment by government bodies, as well as from redundancy and eviction at the hands of ruthless capitalist exploiters. We must fight for an immediate ban on redundancies, unpaid leave and all evictions through suspension of rent, mortgage and utility payments. Those who can afford to pay for the crisis which their hunger for profits created should be forced to do so.

Yet even these measures, were they to be implemented, would be partial and temporary unless they are connected to a wider goal – the reorganisation of the economy under workers’ democratic control which can eliminate once and for all the terrible contradictions of capitalism which destroy the natural environment, increase the spread of communicable diseases, and force workers to shoulder the consequences of repeated economic crises.