THE UK Government this week published its 329-page Coronavirus Bill, which is expected to be rushed through the UK Parliament with minimal scrutiny.

It sets out a range of extraordinary powers designed, in principle, to enable the UK not only to fight the virus, but also to maintain the economy, the food supply chain, essential services, and public order, while that fight goes on.

The powers granted are considerable. Some would directly affect the rights and freedoms of citizens.

The police would be allowed to detain infected persons. Ministers would be allowed to close ports. Trains, vessels and aircraft could be halted. Public gatherings could be prohibited. Schools could be directed to close or remain open. Care standards could be lowered for elderly. The need for jury inquests could be removed. Elections could be postponed.

The UK is not alone in taking such action. There are, however, two considerations that make this massive expansion of state power particularly worrying in a UK context.

The first is that good governance depends on trust. There has to be, in any decent and civilised country, a degree of trust between the state and society – a general expectation that the Government will act reasonably, competently and with good faith. The more power is asked, the stronger that trust has to be.

In the 20th century that trust abounded. The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 and the Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts 1939-1940 granted sweeping emergency powers, enabling the whole of the state apparatus, the economy and society to be put on a war footing.

On the whole, these powers were used responsibly, by a generation of leaders more public-spirited and conscious of their duty than those now at the helm.

Yet, as the Ballad of John Maclean reminds us, the authorities were not above imprisoning peaceful protesters against mass slaughter on the Western Front, nor so self-restrained as to refrain from sending tanks into George Square.

Mass slaughter of the weak, the old, the poor, the vulnerable, is what Boris Johnson’s initial plans pretty much amounted to. Estimates put the expected death toll in the hundreds of thousands: something approximating the Battle of Somme. Perhaps we should expect as much from a government willing to appoint a eugenicist as a special adviser.

That’s the problem with lying liars who lie. After a while, the public becomes convinced it’s all lies, and they tune out. That collapse in trust corrodes the relationship between the state and society, and makes efficient government harder to achieve at times like these when it really counts.

Considered on their own terms, most if not all of the powers outlined in the Coronavirus Bill can probably be justified as a reasonable and proportionate response to the situation. It is harder to believe, however, that these will not be abused.

Authoritarian rulers have often used emergency regulations to stifle dissent, harass opponents, close down civil society, control the media, rig elections, and to strangle democracy. It is difficult to trust that this government – with its known hostility to the European Convention on Human Rights, its record of arbitrarily proroguing Parliament and its attacks on the judiciary – will act in good faith.

In particular, we have to wonder why the bill provides for these powers to be granted for two years, when the Prime Minister is insisting he can get Covid-19 done in 12 weeks.

Secondly, the UK lacks the institutional and procedural safeguards that usually limit emergency powers in modern democratic constitutions. The Constitution of Barbados – to cite a very normal, typical, Westminster Model constitution – allows a state of emergency to be declared for one month; it may be extended by a parliamentary resolution for six months, and thereafter at six month intervals.

The Indian constitution – in common with many other Commonwealth constitutions – allows elections to be delayed in an emergency for one year, but no longer. The Constitution of South Africa allows judicial review of the original declaration of a state of emergency and any subsequent extension.

The SNP’s own 2002 draft constitution for an independent Scotland would have required an emergency powers act to be passed by a three-fifths majority (ensuring, in normal circumstances, an opposition veto), and would have limited the duration of an emergency to three months, after which parliamentary approval would again have to be obtained. Like most other democratic constitutions, it would continue to protect certain “non-derogable” rights (like freedom from torture and slavery) even during emergencies.

Personal liberty may sometimes have to be sacrificed for the common good. That’s solidarity. But there’s a difference between sacrifices and surrender. Limitations on basic democratic rights should not be open-ended. If, after all this is over, trust between the people and state is to be restored, it must be on the basis of a written constitution.

This column welcomes questions from readers