THE emergency Coronavirus Bill "gives us the power to fight the virus with everything we've got," Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, told MPs.

As the legislation began its one-day passage through the Commons, he acknowledged it would arm the state with “extraordinary measures” never seen in peacetime.

For this reason, Mr Hancock stressed the powers would only be used "when strictly necessary" and would remain in force only for as long as required to respond to the pandemic.

He described them as “proportionate to the threat we face” and that they would only be activated “on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence".

The Secretary of State added: "Crucially, the legislation is time-limited for two years and the measures can each be switched on and off individually as necessary by the relevant authority; whether that's the UK Government or the devolved government depending on who exercises the powers."

Following concern from MPs that there was no check on the bill, the Government agreed to a six-month review, including a vote, so that some measures could be changed, if necessary, in the light of experience.

David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, sought an assurance that parts of the bill could be stricken out if they were seen not to be working as intended. His Conservative colleague Steve Baker called for a sunset clause - when the legislation would automatically end - of one rather than two years.

The unprecedented powers include the ability of the authorities to shut premises such as pubs, restrict or close down events, regarded as a threat to public health, and enable officials to close Britain’s borders if the Border Force is unable to control ports and airports properly.

Much of the legislation is concerned at reducing pressure on frontline public services so there are powers to operate courts via videolink and to relax rules around detaining people under mental health laws.

The bill also contains some of the measures announced by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, to help out businesses. For example, it will allow employers to reclaim statutory sick pay funds from HM Revenue and Customs to help ease the burden of increased staff absence.

It will also scrap the three-day waiting period so workers can receive the payments from the day they cease working.

The range of measures is wide and covers such things as ordering more storage space for dead bodies.

To a sparsely populated chamber, with MPs noticeably sitting two metres apart in observance of the social distancing advice, Mr Hancock opened the debate, saying: "Coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in this century.

“We are all targets but the disease reserves its full cruelty for the weakest and the most vulnerable.

"And to defeat it we are proposing extraordinary measures of the kind never seen before in peacetime. Our goal is to protect life and to protect every part of the NHS. And this Bill, jointly agreed with all four UK Governments, gives us the power to fight the virus with everything we've got," he insisted.

Jonathan Ashworth, his Labour shadow, said no MP had entered Parliament to put such emergency powers on the Statute Book, which curtailed basic freedoms, for which their forebears had fought so hard for.

"But I also know that every member here will want to do all they can to support all means necessary to save lives and protect our communities in the face of this virus.”

However, he noted how the measures would "chill every Liberal in the House" and the Opposition only offered its support with a "heavy heart".

Mr Ashworth said that the advice on staying at home and social distancing had not been heard loud and clear and called for more public health messaging from the Government such as TV, radio and social media advertising.

“We need a leaflet through every door explaining what terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘shielding’ actually mean,” he insisted.

The Shadow Secretary of State called for “overwhelming resolve” and urged the Government to “move to enforced social distancing and greater social protection as a matter of urgency”.

He insisted: "If that means forcing people to stay at home, then so be it.”

Jeremy Hunt, the former Conservative Health Secretary, backed an immediate lockdown.

He criticised those people going to parks and beaches "as if nothing has changed", telling MPs: "We must move to lockdown rules now that ban non-essential travel. It's time not just to ask people to do social distancing but enforce social distancing rules."

Mr Blackford for the SNP admitted the emergency legislation could not be scrutinised in the way MPs would normally wish.

“The immediacy of the pandemic and the unprecedented challenges facing Scotland and the rest of the UK simply do not permit that. The stark reality is this, there is simply no time to lose," he declared.

The Highland MP said there was "unfinished business for the self-employed, for the unemployed" and called on the Government to make sure they "do what they need to, to secure the incomes of those that we are asking to take action to protect themselves and protect the rest of us over the coming months".

Tory backbencher Tom Tugendhat, noted how even over six months the powers in the bill were likely to change and exercised in different ways and sought an assurance that they would be used for the purpose they were intended and not in a “malicious fashion”.

Mr Hancock stressed that the powers were there simply to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and nothing else.

Updating MPs about staffing numbers, Mr Hancock said 7,563 clinicians had so far answered the Government’s call to return to work, including Members of Parliament.

“I want to pay tribute to every single one of them,” declared the Health Secretary, adding: “These are difficult times and they have risen to the call of the nation's needs and we know that many more will join them."

Ed Davey for the Liberal Democrats suggested there were many qualified healthcare professionals in the UK's refugee community.

“I've spoken to a refugee charity, RefuAid, who says they have 514 qualified healthcare professionals on their books; people who are willing to work, fully qualified in their own country but there are bureaucratic barriers to them coming forward," said his party’s acting leader.

Mr Hancock responded by saying he would examine the details, noting there was a need to make sure people were capable of doing the required work.

The bill will move to the Lords on Tuesday and, after receiving legislative consent from Holyrood, is expected to become law by the end of the week.