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Coronavirus: MP challenges unilateral power to issue decrees

Anna Theologou

Independent MP Anna Theologou has tabled a bill aiming to bring back to the legislature the power to approve or reject emergency decrees promulgated by the minister of health by which Covid-19 restrictions are imposed.

Her legislative proposal is to be discussed at the House health committee in the coming week and could go to the plenum for a vote next Thursday.

Back in March, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, parliament voted to amend the Infectious Diseases Law, with the change giving the health minister authority to pass decrees without any checks and balances. Under the amendment, the minister promulgates a decree and, once it’s published in the government gazette, it acquires the force of law.

The political world opted for this arrangement in lieu of the government declaring a state of emergency, as provided for under article 183 of the constitution. It was done on the understanding that the arrangement would last a limited time only.

But it has been almost nine months since this state of affairs, and meantime the health minister has issued 55 decrees. Throughout this time, parliament has had no input.

From March to the present, the government never actually declared a state of emergency in relation to Covid.

According to Theologou, the Infectious Diseases Law, as amended in March, clashes with the constitution, which supersedes any specific law.

Under article 183 of the constitution, the cabinet has the power to issue a state of emergency “in case of war or other public danger threatening the life of the Republic…”

Under such an emergency, certain articles of the constitution -such as that pertaining to freedom to peaceably assemble or freedom of movement – may be suspended but only temporarily.

What’s more, a ‘Proclamation of Emergency’ must be approved by a vote in parliament. If approved, a state of emergency is valid for two months only. Should the government wish to extend the state of emergency, it would have to go through parliament again.

The crucial point is that under article 183, the state of emergency is promulgated by the cabinet as a whole, not by any single minister. What’s more, the cabinet must draft specific ordinances relating to the proposed emergency measures; and the ordinances are subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

Essentially Theologou’s bill intends to return to the status quo ante, so that whenever the Health Minister issues a decree – on curfews and so forth – he would need to submit ordinances to lawmakers, who would take a vote on whether to approve them or not.

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