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Late last night the Coronavirus Bill was published. Having considered the Bill, it is not an understatement to say that the Bill represents a somewhat revolutionary piece of legislation.

Unprecedented times, however, call for unprecedented action. The Bill is to be presented to Parliament as soon as possible.

What are the aims behind the Coronavirus Bill?

The proposed changes are designed to give public bodies across the UK the tools and powers needed to carry out what is described as an “effective response to this emergency”.

Some of the proposed changes, therefore, deal with easing the burden on frontline NHS and adult social care staff, some help staff by enabling them to work without financial penalty, and some support people and communities in taking care of themselves, their families and their loved ones.

How long will the proposed legislation remain place?

The legislation will be time-limited, for 2 years, and not all the measures will come into force immediately.

The Bill allows the 4 UK governments to switch on these new powers when they are needed, and crucially, to switch them off again once they are no longer necessary, based on the advice of Chief Medical Officers of the 4 nations.

Contents of the Bill:

The Bill enables action in 5 so-called “key areas”. These are as follows:

  • Increasing the available health and social care workforce.

For example, by allowing recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work. Regulators will have the power to add NHS staff and social workers to their registers.

Employees and workers will be able to take ‘Emergency Volunteer Leave’ in blocks of 2, 3 or 4 weeks’ statutory unpaid leave and a UK-wide compensation fund will be established to compensate for the loss of earnings and expenses incurred at a flat rate for those who volunteer through an appropriate authority.

An indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities arising from NHS activities carried out for the purposes of dealing with, or because of, the coronavirus outbreak, will be implemented, where there is no existing indemnity arrangement in place to ensure those providing healthcare services across the UK are legally protected.

In addition, the rule that currently prevents some NHS staff who return to work after retirement from working more than 16 hours per week will be suspended, along with relaxation on NHS pension rules.

  • Easing the burden on frontline staff, by reducing the number of administrative tasks they have to perform, enabling local authorities to prioritise care for people with the most pressing needs, allowing key workers to perform tasks remotely and taking the power to suspend individual port operations.

Existing mental health legislation powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder and are a risk to themselves or others will be amended to allow implementation using just one doctor’s opinion, rather than two as currently required. The aim is to ensure people can access mental health treatment but reduce the number of doctors required to undertake this function.

It is proposed that NHS providers will be given the power to delay undertaking the assessment process for NHS Continuing Healthcare for individuals being discharged from Hospital until after the emergency period has ended.

In addition, it is proposed that changes will be made to the Care Act 2014 in England and the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 to enable Local Authorities to prioritise the services they offer in order to ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met, even if this means not meeting everyone’s assessed needs in full or delaying some assessments.

The intention is to ease the burden where health and social professionals may be off sick or need to care for loved ones.

Nevertheless, the Bill suggests that Local Authorities will still be expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period and these amendments would not remove the duty of care they have towards an individual’s risk of serious neglect or harm. Furthermore, it is envisaged that these powers would only be used if demand and pressures on the workforce meant that local authorities were at imminent risk of failing to fulfil their duties and will only last the duration of the emergency.

  • Containing and slowing the virus by reducing unnecessary social contacts, for example through powers over events and gatherings, strengthening the quarantine powers of police.

Examples include powers to enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft any moveable structure and any offshore installation, and, where necessary, to close premises.

In addition, it is suggested that a temporary power be provided to close educational establishments or childcare providers, as well as a power the postpone the elections this year until May 2021.

As public support and compliance is crucial, the bill will enable the police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious and to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment.

  • Managing the deceased with respect and dignity by enabling the death management system to deal with increased demand for its services.

Proposed changes mean a coroner will only need to be notified where a doctor believes there is no medical practitioner who may sign the death certificate, or that they are not available with a reasonable time of the death.

The powers relating to the collection of ashes are to be suspended and replaced with a duty to retain until the suspension is lifted, except where family wishes are known.

The list of people who can register a death is to be expanded to include funeral directors acting on behalf of the family.

Documents that currently have to be physically presented in order to certify the registration of death are to be electronically processed.

The requirement for a second confirmatory medical certificate in order for a cremation to take place is to be removed.

Any inquest into a COVID-19 death will not carry a requirement for the inquest to be held with a jury.

  • Supporting people by allowing them to claim Statutory Sick Pay from day one, and by supporting the food industry to maintain supplies.

The government seeks the power to temporarily suspend the rule that means Statutory Sick Pay is not paid for the first 3 days of work, known as “waiting days”.

Employers with fewer than 250 employees are to be enabled to reclaim Statutory Sick Pay paid for sickness absences relating to coronavirus during the period of the outbreak.

The food industry is to provide information to the government about food supplies.

When will the Bill be effective?

The aim is for the bill to take effect from the end of this month. Statutory Sick Pay is intended to have retrospective effect to 13 March 2020.

What happens next?

All we can do is wait and see what emerges from Parliament once the Bill has been considered.

The team at Lester Aldridge will work together to provide a further update on the implications of the legislation once passed in due course. If you have any questions or queries, please email or call 02380 827483.