UK coronavirus bill amended over cremation outcry from British Muslims, Jews

Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock stands at the dispatch box and speaks during the Coronavirus Bill debate to socially distanced MPs in the House of Commons in London on March 23, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 25 March 2020

UK coronavirus bill amended over cremation outcry from British Muslims, Jews

  • The government decision follows Muslim, Jewish protests over burial rites amid coronavirus outbreak
  • The Coronavirus Bill is set to go before Parliament this week, and would give Johnson’s government the most power of any UK government during peacetime

LONDON: The UK government has changed elements of a forthcoming bill, a reaction to the outbreak of coronavirus in the country, after complaints from religious minorities that it would infringe on their burial rites. 
The Coronavirus Bill is set to go before Parliament this week, and would give the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson the most power of any UK government during peacetime. 
Among the more controversial elements of the initial proposal was a section that would have given local authorities the power to cremate the bodies of coronavirus victims without consent, and “streamlining” the process by removing the need for a medical certificate to do so — something expressly illegal in the UK since 1961. 
Such legislation would have put the government at odds not only with the families of victims who may oppose such a move, but also with several religious groups, including the UK’s Muslim and Jewish communities, as cremation is not permitted as a form of burial in either faith.
On Monday, the UK’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that this section of the bill was to be amended.
He told fellow MPs that the government recognized the need to “accede to the wishes of the families and faith communities,” and so would not be pushing this section of the bill.
MP Naz Shah, the shadow women and equalities minister from the opposition Labour Party, welcomed the move on Twitter.

“I’m so relieved that the government have listened to what we’ve said about religious burials for Muslim and Jewish people, and have brought forward an amendment to address our concerns,” she tweeted.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) echoed Shah’s sentiments, with its Secretary-General Harun Khan praising her for her efforts in getting the government to reverse its position.
“The MCB warmly welcomes the UK Government’s amendment which recognizes the importance of ensuring faith communities are able to bury the deceased instead of cremating in the event of significant deaths due to coronavirus,” Khan said in a statement.

“During this national crisis, we are appreciative of this reassurance by our government and its important efforts to listen to and work constructively with faith communities. 
“We pay tribute to the hard work of Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, for raising the issue alongside others, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims for mobilizing support for this important change.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present unprecedented challenges, and at a time of national crisis, this type of constructive engagement will continue to yield positive results for the whole of society.”

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, echoed the MCB’s sentiments.
“We would like to extend our deep and sincere thanks to the government for working with us to amend this legislation to protect the final wishes and religious freedoms of the deceased. There could be few things more sacred,” Van der Zyl said in a statement.

“In particular, we are grateful to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt, Communities Minister Simon Clarke and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief Rehman Chisthti for acting speedily to address the concerns raised by the Jewish and Muslim communities.
“Our thanks also go to Naz Shah MP for her own proposed amendment. This has been an inspiring example of interfaith solidarity and responsive government. It shows, even in these difficult times for our nation, why we have so much reason to be proud of this wonderful country.”

UK government tries to advance coronavirus response, Boris Johnson ‘stable’ in ICU

Updated 08 April 2020

UK government tries to advance coronavirus response, Boris Johnson ‘stable’ in ICU

  • Britain’s leader was in "good spirits,” his spokesman said on Wednesday
  • The UK was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections

LONDON: Britain’s government sought Wednesday to keep a grip on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as Prime Minister Boris Johnson started a third day in the intensive care unit of a London hospital being treated for COVID-19.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a meeting of the government’s COVID-19 crisis committee while the number of virus-related deaths reported in the UK approached the levels seen in the worst-hit European nations, Italy and Spain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is responding to treatment in intensive care at a central London hospital, his spokesman said on Wednesday, adding the British leader was in "good spirits".
"The prime minister remains clinically stable and is responding to treatment. He continues to be cared for in the intensive care unit at St Thomas' hospital. He is in good spirits," the spokesman told reporters.
The country’s confirmed death toll reached 6,159 as of Tuesday, an increase of 786 from 24 hours earlier. That was the biggest daily leap to date, although the deaths reported Tuesday occurred over several days.
The virus has hit people from all walks of life — including Johnson, the first world leader known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The 55-year-old prime minister was admitted to St. Thomas’ Hospital late Sunday with a fever and cough that persisted 10 days after he tested positive for the virus.
He was moved to the ICU on Monday night after his condition deteriorated. 
Johnson’s illness has unleashed a wave of sympathy for the prime minister, including from his political opponents. It has also heightened public unease about the government’s response to the outbreak, which faced criticism even with the energetic Johnson at the helm.
Britain was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections, and the government has struggled to meet its goal of dramatically the number of individuals tested for the virus.
Britain has no official post of deputy or acting prime minister, but Johnson has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to temporarily take over many of the prime minister’s duties to lead the country’s response to the pandemic.
But Raab’s authority is limited. He can’t fire Cabinet ministers or senior officials, and he won’t hold the prime minister’s weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
In the British political system, the prime minister’s power lies less in the role’s specific responsibilities — which are relatively few — than in the leader’s political capital and authority as “first among equals” in the Cabinet.
That’s especially true in Johnson’s government, which is made up of relatively inexperienced ministers appointed by a prime minister with a big personality and a hefty personal mandate from a resounding election victory in December.
In Johnson’s absence, it’s unclear who would decide whether to ease nationwide lockdown measures the British government imposed on March 23 in response the worldwide pandemic. The initial three-week period set for the restrictions expires next week, but with cases and deaths still growing, officials say it is too soon to change course.
“We need to start seeing the numbers coming down,” Argar told the BBC. “That’s when you have a sense, when that’s sustained over a period of time, that you can see it coming out of that.
“We’re not there yet and I don’t exactly know when we will be. The scientists will tell us that they are constantly modelling the data and they’re constantly looking at those stats.”
Meanwhile, officials are watching anxiously to see whether Britain’s hospitals can cope when the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients reaches its peak. Before the outbreak, the UK had about 5,000 intensive care beds, and the government has been scrambling to increase that capacity.
The Nightingale Hospital — a temporary facility for coronavirus patients built in nine days at London’s vast ExCel conference center — admitted its first patients on Wednesday. It can accommodate 4,000 beds, if needed. even other temporary hospitals are being built around the country.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city, which is the epicenter of Britain’s outbreak, had one-quarter of its existing hospital beds still available, as well as the new Nightingale hospital.
“It demonstrates the can-do attitude of not just Londoners but those around the country who have helped us get ready for the peak of this virus,” he said.