The government’s “coronavirus bill” has been published and went before the House of Commons today for its first reading. Next Monday it is expected to be passed through the House rapidly and without a vote, since it had already been agreed to by all opposition parties.
The measures include extraordinary powers in several key areas. They aim to help the government increase available health and social care staff during the peak of the infection period and free up time for frontline staff.
There are also amendments to laws which empower the central authorities and local governments to strengthen public services, keep the economy afloat, and maintain law and order.
In short, this bill is geared towards maximising the capacity to handle the virus and minimising the legal and regulatory obstacles to maximising that capacity.
The contents of the bill contain five main categories – these are:
Measures relating to the health and social care provision and workforce in the coming months.
For instance, regulators will be enabled to create an “emergency register” to sign up “healthcare professionals” such as midwives, nurses, and paramedics. They will do so from among “retired professionals” and “students who are near the end of their training”.
Along with this, there are going to be provision for financial compensation for volunteers and legal protection “for the work which they are required to undertake as part of the COVID-19 response.”
Secondly, there will also be a removal of restrictions to frontline staff in essential services, such as the NHS, so that local authorities can prioritise providing help to individuals who are most at risk.
NHS providers will be allowed to delay undertaking the assessment process for individuals being discharged from hospital until the national emergency has ended.
At the same time, English, Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish social care legislation is being amended to allow local authorities “to prioritise the services they offer in order to ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met.”
Third, a host of draconian measures which strengthen the quarantine powers of the UK’s police and immigration officers.
The Home Secretary is being given the ability to request that port and airport operators close temporarily, and border operations are suspended, if the UK’s Border Force faces staff shortages.
Domestically, for the “government’s objective” to “delay and flatten the peak of the epidemic” to be achieved, the police will be given the power to “restrict or prohibit events and gatherings” and close schools and childcare facilities. The local, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections that were due to be held in May 2020 will be postponed, along with those in May 2021 if this is necessary.
One key passage states: “Public support and compliance is crucial…but we need to ensure police and immigration officers have the authority to enforce these measures where necessary. Therefore, the bill will enable the police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment.”
Criminal trials, meanwhile, will be held by video and audio link without the parties being present where necessary.
In preparation for a potential future vaccine being developed, the laws of England and Wales as well as those of Scotland and Northern Ireland are being changed so that a vaccine can be rapidly rolled out as it becomes available.
Fourth, the government aims to establish a “death management system” to try and provide dignity for potential large numbers of people who will die.
The government wants the authorities to be able to manage those who die with care and respect the wishes of their loved ones as much as possible, it says, while also streamlining the process of handling dead patients when it comes under strain.
Fifth, and finally, the coronavirus bill also announces a rafter of special, emergency procedures to allow for the Treasury to act quickly and responsively to the economic situation as it changes.
Procedures for introducing new Treasury instruments (such as bonds, bills, gilts, and notes) are being relaxed and stripped back to “ensure that the Treasury can transact its business at all times during a COVID-19 emergency period”. This will be necessary for the government to sustain its stimulus programme for the economy.
The government wants to guarantee that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) provisions are made available for the first three days of work missed by workers due to sickness. And, in order to prevent smaller businesses from crumbling under the strain, the government is also making sure that employers with fewer than 250 employees can reclaim the SSP which is paid out for these sickness absences.
In an effort which looks as if it is intended to keep an eye on vital supplies in the country and guard against profiteering, industry will now also be required to provide the Treasury with up-to-date information about food supplies.
The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg described the emergency bill this evening as “an encyclopaedia of emergency powers”. They represent the arsenal of a wartime democracy, giving tremendous powers to the state to curb the normal operation of Britons’ lives and do everything it can to combat the coming crisis. What we have here are the big guns of the state backed up with plenty of butter.
These legal powers are temporary – the bill introducing them contains a sunset clause which makes them time-limited to a period of 2 years. But this will still be far too long for many MPs and civil rights campaigners.
The government stresses that these powers will only be used “in extremis” and will be kept for “the minimum period necessary” to combat the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. That is, draconian and emergency powers will be employed if the extreme circumstances mean that no other, more moderate, course of action is possible.