Emergency Law- Coronavirus Act


26 Mar
26Mar

The Coronavirus Bill became law on 25th March as it received the Royal Assent, after being fast-tracked through Parliament this week.

N.B. This page will be updated with references to the 'Act' rather than the 'Bill' as the relevant Gov.uk and other pages are amended.

With no excuses for quoting directly from the Government's Guidance about the Coronavirus Bill :

"The purpose of the Bill is to provide powers needed to respond to the current Coronavirus epidemic. Powers are for use only if needed, judged on the basis of the clinical and scientific advice. Safeguards have been built in to ensure that powers are only used as necessary, for example during the peak of a Coronavirus outbreak. The aim is to balance the need for speed, as appropriate to the risk posed by the virus, with safeguards to ensure proper oversight and accountability."

"The Bill enables action in 5 key areas:

  1. increasing the available health and social care workforce – for example, by removing barriers to allow recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work (and in Scotland, in addition to retired people, allowing those who are on a career break or are social worker students to become temporary social workers)

  2. easing the burden on front line 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 more tasks remotely and with less paperwork, and taking the power to suspend individual port operations

  3. containing and slowing the virus – by reducing unnecessary social contacts, for example through powers over events and gatherings, and strengthening the quarantine powers of police and immigration officers

  4. managing the deceased with respect and dignity – by enabling the death management system to deal with increased demand for its services

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

The proposals set out in the bill will significantly enhance the ability of public bodies across the UK to provide an effective response to tackle this epidemic. We are therefore aiming for it to reach the statute book and begin to take effect from the end of this month. However, the provisions relating to Statutory Sick Pay are intended to have retrospective effect to 13 March." Gov.uk  (emphasis added)

For more information on the Bill, please go to these links:

  1. Background
  2. Contents of the bill
  3. Increasing the available health and social care workforce
  4. Easing the burden on front line staff, both within the NHS and beyond
  5. Delaying and slowing the virus
  6. Managing the deceased with respect and dignity
  7. Protecting and supporting people

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the powers in the bill were "proportionate to the threat we face" but stressed they would only be used "when strictly necessary" and remain in force only for as long as required to respond to the crisis.  

Make no mistake, the Coronavirus Act gives the Government very extensive powers- almost certainly these are without precedent. Some are say they are the biggest increase in executive power in a generation.

These are just some of those exceptional new powers that are going to be taken by the Government (emphasis added):

"Enable the Home Secretary to request that port and airport operators temporarily close and suspend operations if Border Force staff shortages result in a real and significant threat to the UK’s border security."

"Enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any movable structure and any offshore installation and, where necessary, to close premises."

"Give the government the power to temporarily suspend the rule that means SSP is not paid for the first 3 days of work that you miss because of sickness."

"Enable employers with fewer than 250 employees to reclaim SSP paid for sickness absences relating to coronavirus during the period of the outbreak."

"Require industry to provide information about food supplies, in the event that an industry partner does not co-operate with our current voluntary information-sharing arrangements during a period of potential disruption."

"Expand availability of video and audio link in court proceedings."

"Enable regulators to emergency register suitable people as regulated healthcare professionals, such as nurses, midwives or paramedics."

"Provide indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities arising from NHS activities carried out for the purposes of dealing with, or because of, the coronavirus outbreak, where there is no existing indemnity arrangement in place"

"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," 

Sunset Clause

The Act contains a ‘sunset clause’. This means that the legislation will expire two years after the Bill is passed, but will be reviewed by MPS every six months. 

Typically, a sunset clause is included where legislative measures are likely to be controversial but are deemed necessary to tackle a specific problem.

Section 75(1) of the Bill states that the legislation will expire after a two-year period from the date on which the Bill is passed. Section 75(3) allows a Government Minister to make “technical transitional, transitory and savings provisions,” if necessary to cover a period beyond the two years.

Section 76 of the Bill allows a “relevant national authority” to alter the expiry date for any provision of the Bill. The relevant national authority can bring the provisions to an end six months earlier or six months later than the two-year period provided for in section 75.

Statutory Sick Pay & National Insurance Contributions

Read how the Act affects and reforms SSP and NI- The Commons Library

The Act reforms SSP in two key ways.

Clauses 37 and 40 give the Commissioner for HMRC the power to make regulations to provide funding to employers for SSP payments made in relation to Coronavirus. Funding can be provided in advance as well as in arrears and can be made in the form of deductions from the employer’s existing National Insurance liabilities.

Clauses 38 and 41 give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations to disapply the ‘waiting days’ rule for SSP payments made in relation to Coronavirus. This would mean that employees would receive SSP from the first day of absence, rather than the fourth.

Provisions are included to allow the Government to make changes to NI rates as a response to the Covid-19 outbreak, should that be deemed necessary. 

By the publications team at: Contracts-Direct.com

Commentary:

"There already existed legislation designed to tackle the circumstances of coronavirus. Yet, rather than utilise this framework, the government has resorted to fresh legislation in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Why?" The Law Society Gazette


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