Emergency laws are being pushed through Parliament in order to help contain the spread of COVID-19. It is expected that the Bill will pass through the House of Lords towards the end of the week, after having its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday 23rd. The new laws would be in place for two years. The Bill covers many areas including the NHS, schools, local councils, social care, border force, police, courts and funerals.
The Bill would relax the rules around the registration of healthcare professionals in order to ease the pressure on vital services. This would include allowing nurses that are not already qualified, to order drugs, medicines and appliances needed in regards to the emergency. It would mean re-registering doctors and nurses that have left within the last three years, as well as final year medical students. This is a potential pool of 15,500 doctors and 60,000 nurses, midwives and nursing associates. There are 28,100 final year students that could be registered early.
It is anticipated that there will be an increase in demand for healthcare services during the coronavirus outbreak, especially mental health services. In order to support these services several temporary amendments to the Mental Health Act 1983 have been proposed. These include allowing less health care professionals to carry out certain tasks. They may extend or remove time limits relating to the detention and transfer of patients. This would mean only needing the approval of one doctor instead of two, to detain a person under section 12 of the Act. Patients being treated without their consent have the right to have their treatment reviewed by a second doctor after three months. The new amendment would mean that the three-month period would start at the end of this emergency period.
Local Authorities will lawfully be able to prioritise who and what type of needs it will meet. They will no longer have to meet all the eligible assessed needs required under the Care Act 2014. Currently the Care Act 2014 states that Local Authorities have to carry out all individual assessments or reviews, of care plans and financial assessments. The proposed amendment would lawfully allow Local Authorities to pick and choose.
The Bill intends to suspend several regulations in the NHS pension scheme. This will allow retired staff to immediately return to work whilst being in receipt of their full pension.
Currently NHS Continuing Healthcare provides fully funded care to individuals outside of hospital, if they are assessed as having a ‘primary health need’. These assessments can cause delays to the hospital discharge process. The Bill would allow the NHS to delay undertaking these assessments in order to discharge patients quickly. This measure would only be used for the shortest possible time, during the peak of the outbreak when demand for hospital beds is at its highest.
New powers would allow the government to close or open education and child care institutions. Keeping a few places of education open will allow childcare for certain children, as their parents are key workers. The premises may not be the child’s usual school. Holiday and term times can be changed and certain institutions will be required to provide additional services, such as extended child care. Usually it is up to the owner/proprietor of the school, such as governing bodies, to make decisions. The new power would mean the Secretary of State or the Welsh Ministers can override a decision. Existing requirements will also be relaxed to ease the operation of schools during this difficult period.
Courts and tribunals will be permitted to use fully video and video enabled hearings in various proceedings, in order to limit the spread of coronavirus. It will make provisions for public participation in the fully video hearings to ensure open justice is protected.
The Bill proposes powers to allow the Secretary of State to suspend border force operations, either partially or completely. This is to be used when there is a significant risk to the security of a border port, due to insufficient resources caused by the outbreak of coronavirus.
When it comes to potentially infectious people, the Bill would give the police and immigration officers the power to detain and screen individuals. Non-compliance would be a criminal offence.
The Bill would allow the government to restrict or prohibit public gatherings, events and to close premises. This is to contain the spread of the virus.
Presently deaths in England and Wales need to be registered in person at the register office. The new provision would relax these requirements by allowing deaths to be registered by other means. The current process for approving a cremation would also be relaxed in the event of a severe outbreak. Currently Cremation Form 4 and 5 need to be completed. Only Cremation Form 4 would be needed to authorise a cremation under the proposal. The regulations around the notification of deaths would also be relaxed. This would allow doctors to confirm the cause of death, even if they had not seen the deceased to clarify.
Under the new Bill the Government would be able to intervene in the supply of food, if it needed to. The Government would have the power to demand information in regards to the location and stock of certain food, in order to support the industry.
This article has pulled out a few of the key elements of the Coronavirus Bill. Under normal circumstances these proposals would be extremely controversial but in this uncertain period it may be what is needed to contain and control the spread of COVID-19.
By Samuel Killoran who is a Law Student at Solent University