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EXPLAINED: The sweeping new powers included in the government's emergency coronavirus bill

The emergency powers will provide ministers with new powers to tackle the outbreak

5 min read

MPs are set to pass a historic package of emergency measures to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

The new law will be time-limited for two years, but ministers said they would only "switch on" when absolutely necessary and would be removed after the outbreak on the advice of the chief medical officers of the four UK nations.

The emergency laws are expansive, giving ministers the ability to make unprecedented changes in how the country functions, including the NHS, education, crime, immigration and the economy.

The measures can be split into five key areas:

Boosting NHS resources

  • Restrictions will be removed to allow recently retired health workers and students in the final stages of their training to be deployed into the health service to increase the available workforce.
  • Returning NHS workers won't see any impact to their pension pots, while rules limiting them to 16 hours of work per week will be lifted.
  • Those who have recently left social care roles will see similar restrictions removed to ensure care of vulnerable people and children can continue.
  • Employees will be allowed to take up to a month of statutory unpaid leave to volunteer and help medical patients and those needing social care, while a UK-wide fund will be used to compensate those facing loss of earnings by choosing to carry out voluntary work.
  • The number of doctors required to sign off on an individual being detained under the Mental Health Act because they are a risk to themselves or others will be reduced from two to one.
  • Meanwhile, extensions or removal of time limits included in mental health legislation could be introduced to provide greater flexibility for staff and ensure services continue to run if hit by staff shortages.
  • Local authorities could also be asked to prioritise their social services to ensure the "most urgent and serious care needs are met". The legislation warns this could mean some people might not have all their social care needs met during the outbreak while planned assesments could be delayed.
  • Paperwork will also be reduced for NHS providers discharging patients from hospital until after the outbreak has subsided in an effort to reduce the burden on doctors and free up beds.

Easing legislative rules

  • Ministers will be given powers to order the closure of schools, but will also be provided with the ability to keep some schools open in order to accomodate the children of key workers or the most vulnerable.
  • However, current legal requirements could be relaxed to reduce restrictions on teacher/pupil ratios, adapt school meal standards and change provisions for those with special educational needs.
  • The Home Secretary will be allowed to order airports and ports to shut if Border Force staff shortages leave border security at risk. The legislation says these measures would only be used "in extremis, where necessary and proportionate" and would last for the "minimum period necessary".
  • Court hearings could take place by phone or video should an individual be restricted from attending court due to quarantines. Judges will also be given the powers to decide if other court functions and hearings should be carried out by video or audio links in order to keep courts functioning during the pandemic.
  • The Investigatory Powers Commissioner will be handed the ability to appoint temporary judicial commissioners, allowing warrants to be issed under the Investigatory Powers Act. Ministers say this is crucial for protecting national security and allowing investigations into serious crime to continue.
  • Treasury rules will be relaxed to ensure financial decisions can be made in the event of staff shortages. The number of Treasury ministers or commissioners required to sign off on financial instruments will be reduced from two to one.

Delaying the spread of the virus

  • Police and immigration officers will be given the ability to detain potentially infected people and place them in isolation if they refuse to do so willingly.
  • Ministers will be handed powers to restrict or close all transport networks, as well as order premises to shut and restricting all public events and gatherings.
  • The legislation will also formally give the government the ability to postpone the local and mayoral elections due to take place in May, while also allowing for other electoral events set to take place this year to be postponed, including any by-elections.
  • A series of changes for Northern Ireland and Scotland will also be introduced in order to bring them in line with the rest of the UK. These will include relaxing some rules in Scotland to allow a wider range of health workers to be able to administer vaccines should one become available.

Managing the deceased

  • Significant changes are being made to how deaths are recorded, including easing requirements for coroners to sign death certificates when another health practitioner are available.
  • Funeral directors will also now be able to register deaths on behalf of a family if they are unable due to being quarantined, whilst electronic copies of documents will be accepted in order to certify the registration.
  • In order to free up medical staff, requirements for a second confirmatory medical certificate to be presented before a cremation can be carried out are also being removed.
  • In extreme circumstances, the bill also allows local authorities to "streamline" the management of deaths, including increasing operating times of crematoriums, directing companies to use their vehicles to move bodies or co-opting other firms not involved in the funeral sector to provide support where necessary.

Supporting businesses and workers

  • The Government will be given the ability to temporarily suspend laws which means Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is not paid for the first three days of an absence, with a plan to retrospectively allow SSP to be given to workers affected since 13 March.
  • As announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Budget, the legislation will allow firms with fewer than 250 employees to reclaim the cost of SSP given to workers as a result of the coronavirus outbreak
  • Meanwhile, food suppliers could be forced to give ministers details of their supplies if they refuse to disclose the information through the voluntary system which has been set up in the wake of the outbreak.

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