On Thursday 19 March, the Coronavirus Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons. As an emergency bill, it will undergo all subsequent stages of consideration in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March before going to the House of Lords for consideration. Permission has been given for amendments to be considered at the second reading stage in the House of Commons.
The Bill outlines changes in legislation that the Government states are necessary “in order to give public bodies across the UK the tools and powers they need to carry out an effective response to this emergency.”
The measures proposed in the Bill are time limited for two years and do not come into force immediately, but are able to be “switched on” and “switched off” as necessary by the four UK governments.
Measures within the bill are divided into action in five areas:
- Increasing the available health and social care workforce;
- Easing the burden on ‘frontline’ staff;
- Containing and slowing the virus;
- Managing the deceased with respect and dignity; and
- Supporting people through the crisis.
Key measures outlined include:
- Providing indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities arising from NHS activities carried out because of the coronavirus outbreak.
- Expanding availability of video and audio link in court proceedings. This would include magistrates’ court hearings taking place by phone or by video. It will also enable the expansion of the availability of video and audio link in various criminal proceedings, including full video and audio hearings in certain circumstances, and public participation in relation to these and other court and tribunal proceedings conducted by audio and video.
- Removing the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 requirement that any inquest into a COVID-19 death must be held with a jury. Other notifiable diseases will still require an inquest with a jury.
- Allowing temporary judicial commissioners (JCs) to be appointed at the request of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, in the event that there are insufficient JCs available to operate the system under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.
- Postponing the local, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections that were due to take place until May 2021. Provision will also be made to postpone other electoral events throughout the year, including local authority elections in Wales.
- Enabling 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.
- Enabling 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, to be implemented using just one doctor’s opinion.
- Temporarily allowing extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation to allow for greater flexibility where services are less able to respond.
Other key measures include:
- Giving the Government the power to temporarily suspend the rule that means Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is not paid for the first 3 days of work missed because of sickness.
- Enabling employers with fewer than 250 employees to reclaim SSP paid for sickness absences relating to coronavirus during the period of the outbreak.