SNP accused of trying to ‘railroad’ through six-month extension to emergency Covid powers

John Swinney has been accused of trying to "railroad" through Holyrood a six-month extension to the emergency Covid powers as he warned they could last until autumn next year.

The Deputy First Minister said it was "clear" that some of the emergency powers handed to SNP ministers at the start of the pandemic will still be required after the current expiry date of Sept 30.

He told MSPs work is being done on a new Bill that would extend some of the provisions by six months until March 30 next year, with a further six-month extension until Sept 30 2022 also a possibility.

But the Scottish Tories said it was "hard to see" how an extension of the "extraordinary and unprecedented powers" could be justified for that length of time, particularly given the success of the vaccine rollout.

Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP, said Mr Swinney was trying to "railroad" the extension through parliament before it rises for summer recess at the end of this month.

With the powers currently scheduled to expire on Sept 30 this year, he questioned why the extension could not be debated after MSPs return from their summer break.

The row broke out as Scotland recorded a record high number of Covid cases in children last week. While there is no evidence children are becoming seriously ill, growing numbers of pupils are off school.

Figures published on Wednesday showed hospital admissions also increased slightly last week to 144 but only 20 of these were in the over-65s thanks to the UK’s vaccination programme. In addition, there were only eight deaths.

MSPs passed two emergency coronavirus Acts last year, both in single day sittings, that were aimed at helping the country fight the virus.

The new laws made changes to the justice system, including allowing for the early release of prisoners if the virus caused issues within the prison service, the rental sector and the functions of public bodies.

Mr Swinney told parliament some of the measures will be dropped, though he did not say which, and no more powers will be added to the new Bill.

A Coronavirus Extension and Expiry Bill will be introduced to parliament later this month to "ensure that public services are able to discharge their functions", he said.

Mr Swinney said MSPs would have the "maximum" three days of parliamentary time to debate the extension and argued this should not be delayed until after the recess, to give public bodies enough time to implement any changes.

Map of UK’s seven-day Covid-19 infection rate, by local authority

But Mr Fraser said: "The Scottish Government are trying to railroad this new law with its extension of extraordinary powers through parliament in two weeks’ time, before the summer recess, with no time for detailed consultation or scrutiny and more than three months before the current powers are set to expire."

Public Health Scotland on Wednesday reported that weekly infections in children under 15 reached 1,064 on June 7 – higher than the peak in early January. They account for around a quarter of cases in recent weeks.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, has said Scotland would move quickly to vaccinate those aged between 12 and 15 if recommended by the regulator. However, medics have said children’s wards are not seeing any significant rise in admissions due to Covid and said there is no reason for parents to worry.

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