THE innocuously named Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill is, according to the SNP, merely a prudent mechanism to allow for a nimble government response to any future public health emergency, and doesn’t furnish much more in the way of powers than those that are already available by statute in England and Wales. According to the opposition parties, it is a dangerously illiberal power-grab and a gross over-reach by ministers.

There is, naturally, the expectation that opposition parties will oppose, and that they will express their objections in a forceful and on occasion – the governing party may think – even a hyperbolic manner. But in this instance, while the Government’s proposals hardly herald some imminent Hitlerian or Stalinist tyranny, they are right to conclude that they are unwarranted and excessive.

It is the conclusion also reached by business leaders and legal authorities; the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce described the bill as a “blueprint to go backwards”, while Roddy Dunlop, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, warned that it could make permanent powers that were “scarcely… imaginable” before the pandemic and “dilute… Parliamentary scrutiny” of “swingeing restrictions”. And it is a judgment shared by 85 per cent of the public in the Government’s own consultation exercise. John Swinney’s declaration that their views had been “considered very carefully” doesn’t disguise the fact that they’ve been comprehensively rejected.

Since these proposals would allow for permanent powers in 30 specific areas, allowing ministers to shut shops, restaurants and schools, release prisoners early, and alter rules on bankruptcy and tenancy without any reference to parliament, these are hardly unfounded concerns. There is no need to assume any malign intent or authoritarian ambition on the part of the SNP to be highly cautious about such changes; indeed, Alex Neil, the former health minister, said such “draconian powers” should always be subject to “explicit parliamentary approval”.

The Government itself, like those elsewhere in the UK, was at pains to stress the temporary and extraordinary nature of restrictions when they were first brought in. Most people, having seen the scale and traumatic effects of the pandemic, accepted the general principle of restraints (even if, with hindsight, some may now think some of them were excessive or ill-founded). No one envisaged handing such far-reaching powers to ministers as a matter of course.

Everyone wants government to be able to react swiftly to future emergencies, but the requirement for parliamentary oversight is hardly excessively onerous, or a serious impediment to decisive action. The “made affirmative” procedure, hardly ever used before the pandemic, has been invoked 132 times since it began.

It is obviously more convenient for ministers to give themselves the maximum freedom of manoeuvre, but parliamentary scrutiny is designed precisely to guard against the possible abuses such powers allow, and restrictions on liberty that are intolerable except in circumstances where their necessity is widely accepted as essential.

It is because all governments, however benevolent, like to accrue such powers, and once having gained them, are reluctant to relinquish them, that such trends should be resisted. Dismissing such concerns can actually be counterproductive; in Canada, Justin Trudeau’s airy dismissal of truckers’ protests against compulsory vaccination has turned a small rebellion against one measure into a huge campaign to repeal all public health regulations and bring down the federal government.

Though many people are weary of restrictions – especially since the more relaxed rules in England have not led to any notable difference in clinical outcomes – we are not in such a dire position. But the claims of Mr Swinney that limiting the public’s freedom and ability to exercise their own judgment has led to “more efficient ways of working” and “better service” is not only deeply patronising – as anyone struggling to see their GP or dentist will attest – but symptomatic of an extremely dangerous assumption that what is most convenient for government or bureaucrats must, by definition, be a public good. The public does not agree, and the Government exists to serve them, and not the other way around.