On 19 March 2020 the UK Government published a summary impact assessment of the proposed emergency coronavirus legislation (available here).
The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that public bodies across the UK have the tools and powers they need to carry out an effective response to this emergency.
The existing public health powers contained within the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 are likely to be inadequate to meet the challenges faced.
However, the Bill provides a complete package of protective measures, broader than public health provisions alone, designed to maximise capacity, resilience and flexibility in every sphere likely to be impacted. The legislation will be time limited to two years, and not all of the measures will come into force immediately.
Indeed – the key variable in all of this is not just the progression of the infection, but how we behave as citizens. If anxiety and panic are spread as viruses themselves, then we can expect the introduction of the provisions more rapidly.
The bill focuses on five key areas:
Increasing the available health and social care workforce
The Government aims to reduce pressure on the workforce by enabling regulators to emergency register recently retired healthcare professionals or students nearing the end of their training. It is anticipated that up there may be up to 75,500 potential volunteers, although it is not known how many of these will actually volunteer.
The Government also hopes to rely on Emergency Volunteers in the creation of a potential ‘citizen army’ to be locally co-ordinated – again to ease the burden on frontline services. With some exemptions, employers will be required to give volunteers unpaid leave.
Easing the burden on frontline staff
Restrictions in relation to the Mental Health Act 1983 will be relaxed. For example, decisions to detain and treat patients with mental health disorders who need urgent treatment, will be made by just one doctor, rather than two, and local authorities will be permitted to focus the services they provide on meeting the most urgent and serious care needs.
For the protection of national security, the Home Secretary will be given the power to direct temporary port closures.
The Bill will also expand the availability of audio and video link in court and tribunal proceedings – particularly in relation to individuals appealing against quarantines or restrictions made in response.
Containing and slowing the virus
In line with the Government’s objective to flatten the peak of the epidemic, measures will be brought in to reduce unnecessary social contacts. The Bill will enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings, and provide a temporary power to close educational establishments and childcare providers. Law enforcement officers will have increased powers to detain individuals to prevent the spread of infection.
Managing the deceased with respect and dignity
The Bill will take account of the fact that families of the deceased may be ill or self-isolating, and there will be a reduced capacity to manage and register deaths. Measures will be introduced to expand the list of people who can register a death; enable electronic transmission of documents in certifying the registration of a death; and remove the requirement for inquests into a COVID-19 death to take place with a jury.
In accordance with current advice, there will be an increased number of people off work due to illness or self-isolation. In order to support those people, the Government will be given the power to temporarily suspend the rule that Statutory Sick Pay is not paid for the first three days; and will enable employers with less than 250 employees to reclaim sums paid.
The Bill will also require the food industry to provide information about food supplies in the event that such information (currently provided voluntarily) is not forthcoming.
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