Coronavirus: the UK emergency response

Out-Law Guide | 18 Mar 2020 | 3:37 pm | 7 min. read

The Coronavirus Bill is due to be introduced before the UK parliament on Thursday 19 March and could take effect by the end of the month.

The emergency legislation would give the UK government, and other UK authorities, wide-ranging new powers to address the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on essential services, as well as on businesses and workers.

Businesses should take the time to understand what is in the Bill, and study the detail of the government's financial measures announced by the chancellor on 17 March, to see how they might be impacted and what support will be available to them.

Overview of the Coronavirus Bill

The Coronavirus Bill will give the UK government the power to strengthen essential services during the coronavirus, or Covid-19, crisis. The government has also said that the Bill will help to overcome large-scale absences in the workforce and ensure that all resources are available to manage the pandemic as it develops.

The Bill has been developed by the government in conjunction with opposition parties in Westminster, and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure a UK-wide approach. The Bill is therefore likely to pass into law through an expedited process.

The legislation will include a sunset clause, meaning that the powers it provides for will expire after two years, unless further legislative action is taken to extend the law. The measures included in the Bill, which all four governments across the UK will be able to give effect to, will not all come into force immediately. Measures that are given effect will also be able to be removed once they are no longer necessary, based on the advice of chief medical officers of the four nations.

Matt Hancock, health secretary in England, said: "This Bill will give us the powers to keep essential services running at a time when large parts of the workforce may be off sick. Some of these measures will be very significant and a departure from the way we do things in peacetime.

These are strictly temporary and proportionate to the threat we face, and I hope that many will not have to be used at all. They will only be activated on the basis of scientific advice and will only be in place for as long as is clinically necessary."

According to the UK government, there are five strands to the Bill, summarised below.

Increasing the availability of health and social care staff

Measures that could be introduced under this theme:

  • Regulators could be permitted to emergency register suitable people as regulated healthcare professionals, such as nurses, midwives or paramedics. This might include, but will not be limited to, recently retired professionals and students who are near the end of their training
  • Regulators could temporarily add social workers to their registers in order to ensure continuity of care for vulnerable children and adults
  • Establishment of a UK-wide compensation fund to enable employees and workers to take emergency volunteer leave in blocks of two, three or four weeks statutory unpaid leave
  • Provision of 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
  • Suspension of the rule that currently prevents some NHS staff who return to work after retirement from working more than 16 hours per week, along with rules on abatements and drawn-down of NHS pensions that apply to certain retirees who return to work

Easing the burden on frontline staff – NHS

Measures that could be introduced under this theme:

  • Enabling of existing mental health legislation powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder to be implemented using just one doctor’s opinion rather than the current two;
  • Temporarily allowing the extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation to allow for greater flexibility where services are less able to respond
  • Allowing NHS providers to delay undertaking the assessment process for NHS continuing healthcare for individuals being discharged from hospital until after the emergency period has ended
  • Changing 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

Easing the burden on frontline staff – schools, police, court

Measures that could be introduced under this theme:

  • Providing powers to require educational institutions or childcare providers to stay open or relax some requirements around education legislation in order to help these institutions run effectively during the event of an emergency, such as reducing teacher ratios, adapting school meal standards and relaxing provisions for those with special educational needs
  • Enabling 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 to ensure the UK can maintain adequate border security throughout the pandemic
  • Expansion of availability of video and audio link in court proceedings
  • Ensuring that the Treasury can transact its business at all times, by making it possible for a single commissioner or a single Treasury minister to sign instruments and act on behalf of the commissioners, during a Covid-19 emergency period
  • Enabling the investigatory powers commissioner to request the appointment of temporary judicial commissioners (JCs) in the event that there are insufficient JCs available to operate the system under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. This is the one of the critical pieces of domestic legislation for national security

Containing and slowing the spread of the virus

Measures that could be introduced under this theme:

  • Enabling 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
  • Providing a temporary power to close educational establishments or childcare providers
  • Postponing the local, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections that were due to take place in England in May this year until May 2021. Provision will also be made to postpone other electoral events over the course of the year, such as by-elections

Managing the deceased with respect and dignity

Measures that could be introduced under this theme:

  • A coroner is only to be notified where a doctor believes there is no medical practitioner who may sign the death certificate, or that they are not available within a reasonable time of the death
  • Introducing powers to enable the provisions under the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 relating to the collection of ashes to be suspended and replaced with a duty to retain until the suspension is lifted, except where family wishes are known
  • Expanding the list of people who can register a death to include funeral directors acting on behalf of the family
  • Enabling electronic transmission of documents that currently have to be physically presented in order to certify the registration of a death
  • Removing the need for a second confirmatory medical certificate in order for a cremation to take place
  • 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

Protecting and supporting people

Measures that could be introduced under this theme:

  • Giving the government the power to temporarily suspend the rule that means statutory sick pay (SSP) is not paid for the first three days of work that you miss 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
  • Requiring industry to provide information about food supplies, in the event that an industry partner does not co-operate with current voluntary information-sharing arrangements during a period of potential disruption

A summary of the financial support measures outlined by the Treasury

On 17 March, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a number of financial support measures for business to help them deal with the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis. These include:

  • £330 billion of government-backed loans and guarantees – equivalent to 15% of UK GDP
  • A scheme to support liquidity for larger firms via a new lending facility with Bank of England
  • Extension of the business interruption loan scheme – up from £1.2m to £5m loans with no interest for the first six months
  • A new legal power – through the Coronavirus Bill – to offer further financial support if necessary
  • Consideration is being given to specific support for airlines and airports. This could be announced over the coming days
  • The Cabinet is to convene meetings with most affected business sectors to discuss regulatory forbearance and other support
  • Hospitality/leisure businesses with an insurance policy that covers pandemics – the chancellor's announcement will allow business to make an insurance claim against their policy
  • Cash grant of up to £25,000 for businesses that do not have insurance that covers a pandemic 
  • Extension of the business rates holiday to all business in hospitality and retail sectors irrespective of rateable value. This means shop, pubs, cinemas and restaurant, for example, will pay no business rates for 12 months.
  • A £3,000 cash grant for 7,000 of the UK's smallest businesses will be increased to £10,000 – on top of an unlimited lending capacity
  • £3.5bn additional funding for devolved governments
  • Mortgage holiday for three months to support families

In addition to those measures, the chancellor has committed to introduce further measures on employment and support to protect jobs and incomes.

The government has also announced the postponement of the extension of the IR35 off-payroll working rules to large and medium-sized private sector businesses until 6 April 2021.