TEMPORARY powers to close schools, introduce lockdowns and require face coverings could be made permanent in the event of future pandemics under proposals tabled by SNP ministers.
The Scottish Government has put forward a host of temporary powers it would like to either make permanent or extend – covering schools and education provision, justice and court procedures and digitising statutory processes.
Under the plans, launched in a public consultation, powers set to expire in March 2022 including “prohibiting or limiting numbers at gatherings, introducing lockdown measures, and requiring that face coverings are worn” could be permanently available to ministers.
The proposals also include “powers to make directions to close educational establishments”.
Under the plans, ministers would be able to order school closures “during the remainder of the pandemic” or for any future outbreak of an infectious disease, so long as they believe it is “necessary and proportionate”, and the chief medical officer has been consulted.
During the Covid pandemic, SNP ministers used powers around continuity of education “extensively” including free school meals and childcare for children of key workers being provided during the height of the lockdown.
In its consultation document, the Scottish Government has warned that “future pandemics may have an impact on educational provision”, adding that “action may need to be taken to control transmission”.
It adds: “Scottish Ministers are minded to provide for permanent powers – either in their entirety or adapted to reflect our experience of the use of the powers in the various types of educational institution during the Covid pandemic or with additional safeguards – so they can be deployed as necessary during the remainder of the pandemic.
“In the event of a future pandemic, the broad nature of the powers will provide ministers with the flexibility to take the action needed to address the specific circumstances of the health emergency.”
The document also stresses that backlogs in court proceedings could take until 2025 to be cleared – leading ministers to propose digitised and remote procedures continuing beyond March 2022, when many measures are due to expire.
Under the plans, those attending court or tribunal by electronic means such as video link could be extended beyond March 2022 – but the court would have the power to “require a person to physically attend in a particular case”.
The plans could also lead to rules allowing certain prisoners to be released early to be extended, as well as the extension of the use of fiscal fines as an alternative to prosecution.
If approved, nurses, midwives and paramedics will be able to permanently administer vaccinations “to make it easier to quickly protect the population from infectious diseases”.
The proposed changes would also maintain pre-eviction protocols relating to rent arrears in the private rented sector, ensuring that tenants have all the information they need about their rights, and placing more responsibility on landlords to ensure correct procedures are followed.
Deputy First Minister and Covid Recovery Secretary, John Swinney, said: “This consultation focuses on reviewing the legislative powers that have supported our response to Covid-19. We want to ensure we remove measures no longer needed in order to respond to the pandemic whilst keeping those where there is demonstrable benefit to the people of Scotland.
“This is an opportunity to maintain changes that have been welcomed by people who now don’t want to lose transformations that have been innovative, beneficial, and increased access to services.”
He added: “While the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, its urgency has forced the public services we rely on to adapt and continue and still deliver, driving the pace of digital adoption, and in some cases more efficient ways of working.
“As we enter the recovery phase, we now have a unique opportunity to reimagine how health and social care, learning and justice services can be designed and delivered around the lives and needs of the people who use them.
“I invite everyone to have their say on what this future should look like to support a fair, safe and secure recovery. Your views on these proposals will inform any future legislation to be brought forward on these topics for full scrutiny and debate in Parliament.
“We remain committed to expiring or suspending any existing provisions that are no longer necessary, and will continue to report to Parliament every two months on the use of any temporary powers.”
The plans for courts and criminal processes are intended to “facilitate the desired managed move to a more digitalised justice sector”.