Assembly to discuss allowing ministers tough powers to tackle coronavirus

The Assembly will meet in extraordinary circumstances today (Tuesday) with AMs being asked to back a law which will give ministers unprecedented new powers to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

They'll be meeting at a time when all of us are coming to terms with the implications of new restrictions announced yesterday and which come into force today.

That means the session itself will be unusual with only a small number of AMs representing the political parties in the chamber.

The changes they'll discuss and vote on are contained in a bill that has been drawn up by all four governments of the UK.

Although AMs will have their say today, as will members of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Irish Assembly, it won't affect the outcome of the bill which is expected to pass through parliament and become law by the end of the week.

Among the changes it would introduce, the law will give Welsh ministers the power to:

  • Detain a person, force them to remain in quarantine or take certain precautions
  • Prohibit mass gatherings
  • Close schools or directing them to remain open
  • Redeploy teachers
  • Change the ratio of pupils to teachers required in classes
  • Ease the rules on criminal (DBS) checks - not to remove them altogether but to allow a DBS check from one organisation to be used at another.
  • Provide indemnity cover for health workers

There's unlikely to be any serious opposition to the bill in the Assembly nor in any of the other parliaments of the UK, although there had been concern that the draconian measures would remain in place for two years.

The UK Government moved to meet those concerns by altering the bill to include six-monthly reviews.

Even so it's a sign of how much the politics of the UK has changed in the last month that this legislation is being dealt with in this way. It was only in January that the devolved governments criticised ministers in London for ignoring votes saying 'no' to Boris Johnson's EU Withdrawal Bill. It's a different world.

Today's meeting of the Assembly will be different in other ways.

There'll be two sessions beginning at 10am and expected to end in the early evening, replacing the usual Tuesday and Wednesday sessions.

There'll be no First Minister's Questions although Mark Drakeford will make a statement about the unprecedented moves he and the leaders of the UK's other governments made yesterday and he'll answer questions on that.

Fewer AMs will be in the chamber. The parties have agreed that there'll be six representing the Welsh Government, three Conservatives, two Plaid Cymru and one Brexit party AM.

The Llywydd has asked independent AMs to follow suit.

There'll also be a series of statements from ministers updating AMs about the coronavirus situation and answering their questions.

Then AMs will debate the Emergency Coronavirus Bill.