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Final Report of the Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers

Katie Lines


The Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers was established in October 2022 and is chaired by the Rt. Hon. Sir Jack Beatson FBA, formerly a member of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, who has worked alongside 12 Commissioners with backgrounds in law, public health and other areas of parliamentary governance and public policy. The Commission was supported by a research team from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law which served as its secretariat. It considered both written and oral evidence, and comments on its preliminary findings, from 82 individuals and organisations across the UK and in 10 other jurisdictions

The report makes 44 recommendations to enable the four nations in the UK to better protect the rule of law and good governance in future public health emergencies, while acting quickly to secure timely and effective public health outcomes. The recommendations focus on the design of primary and secondary legislation (including the protection of human rights), the enhancement of parliamentary procedures, improvement of legal certainty, and the appropriateness of enforcement action. Findings have been shared with both the UK and Scottish public inquiries into Covid-19, and with senior health officials in each of the four nations.

Report findings

Improving the design of legislation

The report makes recommendations to ensure that emergency law-making better complies with the rule of law, especially urgent law-making by government that takes place without prior parliamentary scrutiny. It recommends amendments to the UK's existing framework legislation designed to address multiple public health threats, and also discusses fast-tracked primary legislation which may be enacted during a public health emergency to respond to the specific threat.

Enhancing parliamentary procedures

The report explores how parliamentary procedures can best be adapted so that legislatures can provide appropriate oversight of an emergency response. Its recommendations include making parliamentary committees more effective, improving the manner in which adaptations to parliamentary procedures are made and discontinued, and improving parliamentary involvement in government contingency planning.

Enhancing legal certainty

The report focuses on three main areas of legal uncertainty that arose during the Covid-19 pandemic: (1) uncertainty caused by the manner of making and frequently amending large numbers of public health regulations; (2) uncertainty caused by the way legal requirements and public-health advice were communicated by government, often without clearly distinguishing between the two; and (3) uncertainty resulting from differences between the responses to Covid-19 in the four UK nations. It suggests ways of ameliorating these problems.

Improving enforcement

Finally, the report considers enforcement of public health restrictions. It reviews whether public health restrictions should be underpinned by criminal sanctions as a matter of principle. It then considers enforcement mechanisms used during the Covid-19 pandemic and makes recommendations for improvements in future public health emergencies.

The vital work of the Independent Commission was generously supported by the JRSST Charitable Trust, alongside other funders.

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