What’s in the UK Coronavirus Bill?

Within the last week, the UK Government introduced an emergency law to deal with the coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic – Bill here (pdf), explanatory memorandum here (pdf).

The Senedd is due to discuss a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) on this tomorrow as it legislates in some devolved areas.

The Bill itself won’t get as much attention as recent emergency announcements to shore up the economy – but in the interests of public information it has to be properly summarised because it could have a big impact.

As it’s an emergency law, it’ll be fast-tracked through the UK Parliament and is expected to come into force by the end of March 2020 and last for two years – which is roughly the window in which a vaccine is expected to be developed – albeit with provision for it to be extended or shortened as needs be. The Welsh Government have already introduced emergency regulations on detention and isolation of people suspected of being infected.

NHS & Social Care Administration

  • Regulates the emergency registration of nurses, doctors, pharmacists and social workers and allows a system of payments to be set up for emergency volunteers for expenses and loss of earnings.
  • Rules regarding NHS pensions in EnglandandWales will be suspended to allow retired healthcare workers to return to work temporarily.
  • The Bill includes powers for an indemnity scheme for health care workers and other undertaking activities relating to the pandemic.
  • The Welsh Government will be able to introduce flexible vetting procedures (i.e. not requiring a full DBS check) for health care providers.
  • Only one doctor’s authorisation will be required to detain someone under the Mental Health Act (aka. sectioned).

Excess Deaths

  • Any doctor, not just those who’ve had contact with a recently deceased person, will be able to sign a death certificate without it being referred to a coroner.
  • Family members of the deceased won’t have to physically attend a registry office to register a death (funeral directors will be able to on their behalf, for example). Confirmatory medical certificates won’t be required to allow cremations to take place.
  • Coroners inquests with a jury won’t need to be held if the suspected cause of death was coronavirus/Covid-19.
  • In circumstances where local authorities can’t cope with an excess number of deaths, cremation may become mandatory (and crematoriums may have their operating hours extended), while traditional/individual funerals may not take place – though this is only likely to happen in a “worst-case scenario“.

Economy, Tax & Welfare

  • The Welsh Government will be able to close schools and childcare facilities as well as cancel/close events, gatherings and any other premises.
  • Employers will be able to recover the costs of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from HMRC to encourage sick employees to take time off work. “Waiting days” (usually 3 days) to receive SSP can also be waived.
  • National insurance contribution rates can be changed without an accompanying report.
  • The food industry can be compelled to supply governments with information relating to supplies (at the moment it’s done voluntarily).
  • Port operations can be suspended if there are insufficient Border Force officers.
  • There’s a broad provision allowing public authorities (including the devolved administrations) to make payments/provide financial assistance relating to the Coronavirus Bill.

Policing & Criminal Justice

  • The Bill includes powers to appoint temporary Judicial Commissioners (to issue warrants under the Investigatory Powers Act).
  • Urgent warrants can be valid for up to 12 days (an increase from 3 days).
  • The use of video links in the courts will be expanded, with rules on public proceedings changed to reflect this.

Postponement of Elections

  • All elections due to take place in 2020 will be postponed to 6th May 2021 (in Wales’ case, the Police & Crime Commissioner elections).
  • Recall petitions for MPs can’t take place at least 6th May 2021.
  • The Llywydd/Presiding Officer of the Senedd can postpone by-elections for Senedd constituency vacancies until the next Senedd election on 6th May 2021.
  • The Welsh Government can delay local authority by-elections until any date before 6th May 2021.

Conclusions: Not as draconian as it could’ve been, but read the small print

The last time we saw legislation like this (as far as I know) was at the start of the Second World War – which underlines how bad the situation is expected to get. It’s a step down from the kind of measures that would’ve been put in place as part of a “transition to war period” during the Cold War.  That said, while there’s a two year time limit on the law, it effectively means that things like public protests and rallies (probably including strikes) are banned for the next two years “on public health grounds” unless the UK Government and Parliament (in some circumstances the Welsh Government) decides otherwise.

The longer people ignore advice to stay home and minimise contact with other people, the longer this will last; within 2-3 weeks we’ll be talking about 50+ deaths a day in Wales. The message isn’t getting through and I’m surprised that TV and radio adverts haven’t been replaced with public information films. That failure to communicate properly is certainly going to be one of the major points of inquiry once this is over.

One area where measures could be strengthened (perhaps the Senedd can look at it if MPs don’t) is dealing with anti-social business practices for the next two years.

That could include price gouging, scams, ignoring advice and orders to close, encouraging/forcing people to work when ill, laying people off (or threatening to do so) for refusing to work when ill/self-isolating, encouraging people to breach advice on social distancing and encouraging unnecessary travel within and outside the UK. Price controls and limits on sale of certain items wouldn’t be a bad idea either until the run on certain goods stops.

The concern now is that panic buying is going to shift from selfish individuals and households to the “I’m here to help”/community support groups as they try to bulk-buy for other people who are self-isolating – so there may have to be some sort of official accreditation system for community volunteers or stores of essentials set aside specifically for them.

While measures to ban evictions were recently announced, the Renting Homes (Amendment) Bill may also need to be fast-tracked in the Senedd to provide extra protection from eviction.

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