Democratic decision-making in health emergencies: Learning the lessons of the Covid pandemic - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 37

31 May 2024
©Number 10/Flickr
©Number 10/Flickr

This week we have a compelling conversation with human-rights barrister Adam Wagner as we delve into the findings of the Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers. Just before the general election was called, the Commission published its final recommendations, aiming to reshape law-making in the event of a future health emergency in the UK.

In this episode, we have got exclusive insights from Adam Wagner and our co-host Ruth Fox, both Commissioners appointed by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. They share their perspectives on the critical issues surrounding parliamentary scrutiny, the rule of law and the protection of human rights during Covid-19 and they discuss the importance of addressing these issues now, given that they fall outside the remit of the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

With a simple stroke of a pen Ministers imposed regulations during the pandemic, leading to some of the most restrictive peacetime laws in history. But the concept of ‘emergency’ was stretched and the role of parliaments – and most especially the House of Commons - was marginalised to an unacceptable extent: parliamentary accountability for, and control over Ministerial decisions diminished considerably.

The key questions addressed in this episode include: what should appropriate democratic oversight and accountability of emergency law-making look like? And how can we prevent the marginalisation of Parliament in future health emergencies?

We explore the Commission's recommendations, including proposed changes to the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the introduction of an ‘urgent health situation’ declaration to enable emergency scrutiny procedures for a limited time, and the creation of a dedicated emergency parliamentary scrutiny committee to review government policy on a cross-departmental basis during health emergencies.

Covid-19 underscored the critical role of legislatures as forums for debate, democratic accountability, and approval of legal responses to emergencies. Thus, another of the Commission’s recommendations is that all four legislatures be involved in future contingency planning for health emergencies.

Tune in to this episode for an in-depth discussion on the future of emergency law-making and the steps needed to ensure robust parliamentary oversight and accountability in times of crisis.

  • What were the issues with the legal process during the Covid-19 lockdowns?

  • How did the process of enacting emergency regulations work during the pandemic?

  • What were the issues with the clarity between law and guidance?

  • Should the Civil Contingencies Act have been used instead of the Public Health Act?

  • What changes are proposed to improve future emergency law-making?

  • How would these changes impact the democratic process during a health emergency?

  • What is the response from politicians regarding these recommendations?

Parliament Matters is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Parliament Matters is supported by a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.


Adam Wagner

Adam Wagner is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, with expertise in public and constitutional law, international law and human rights law. Adam has led a number of cases relating to protest rights, the COVID-19 pandemic, and international human rights law and acted in several major and politically sensitive inquiries and inquests. He served as a Commissioner to the Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers, which recently published its final report. Relatedly, in 2022 Adam published Emergency State: How We Lost Our Freedoms in the Pandemic and Why it Matters, a comprehensive account of the laws and restrictions that were enacted during the pandemic. Adam also founded and chairs the human rights education charity EachOther.

Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law

Hansard Society

House of Lords

Please note, this transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript copy below, please first check against the audio version above. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph.

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:16:18 You're listening to Parliament Matters, a Hansard Society production, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at 00:00:16:20 - 00:00:39:21 Welcome to Parliament Matters, the podcast about the institution at the heart of our democracy, Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark D'Arcy. This is a special episode where we look at new proposals to deal with health emergencies like Covid 19.

Do you remember this? "You must stay at home."

This month, the final report of the Independent Commission on the UK Public Health Emergency Powers has been published. 00:00:39:23 - 00:01:03:03 This commission is established under the authority of the Bingham Center for the Rule of Law and I and Adam Wagner the barrister have been commissioners looking at how changes can be made to improve the way emergency regulations and legislation are made in the future should we have another health emergency. We went along to talk to Adam about the report. 00:01:06:00 - 00:01:34:06 So here we are at Doughty Street Chambers, the offices of Adam Wagner, the barrister who's been involved in the Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers. Essentially a big review of the way the law worked when the government had to introduce emergency restrictions at the outbreak of coronavirus back in 2020. Adam, I suppose the first thing to ask is what was wrong with what happened when those powers were launched, when Boris Johnson told us all to stay at home? 00:01:34:08 - 00:01:57:21 Were there problems with the way the legal process behind that unfolded? I think there were problems which certainly came to light as the pandemic proceeded. And this commission, which was chaired by Sir Jack Beatson and supported by the Bingham Centre, really focused on the rule of law issues, many of which probably could not have been predicted because we didn't know what the nature of Covid 19. 00:01:57:21 - 00:02:29:19 And it was a very specific kind of disease, and it spread in a particular kind of way, and it needed certain kind of restrictions. So we looked at not whether the restrictions themselves were justified. That's something the Covid inquiry is looking at. But when the laws that brought into force the lockdowns, hotel quarantine, the closure of schools, all of those measures which we all remember and were so extreme, certainly the most extreme measures that have been brought in since the Second World War.

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