The Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 25 March, having been fast-tracked through parliament in just four sitting days. The Act contains ‘emergency powers’ to enable public bodies to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Act has three main aims:
- to give further powers to the government to slow the spread of the virus
- to reduce the resourcing and administrative burden on public bodies
- to limit the impact of potential staffing shortages on the delivery of public services.
The Act requires the secretary of state for health and social care to report on which powers have been used every few months. It is also subject to two sunset clauses. Some of its provisions expire automatically in March 2022, two years after its passage, and other provisions have to be reviewed by parliament every six months.
Among other things, the Coronavirus Act has been used to:
- provide powers to the Scottish government and Northern Ireland executive to make ‘lockdown’ regulations to respond to coronavirus
- authorise various different Treasury directions, allowing the Treasury to create and implement new financial schemes (like furlough)
- postpone elections for police and crime commissioners, and for some local authorities and metro mayors due to be held in May 2020 (these took place in May 2021)
- facilitate the expansion of NHS capacity during the height of the pandemic.
However, the Coronavirus Act has not been used to restrict holding public gatherings or to close business and non-essential services (despite these powers being present).
In the latest ‘COVID-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021', the government committed to repealing the Act’s powers to restrict gathers and close powers, alongside powers to detain and test those suspected to have caught the virus.
Some powers have also automatically expired like the home secretary’s powers to retain DNA and fingerprints, and the powers to suspend judicial oversight over some aspects of the national security process.
Since the Coronavirus Act was not used in England and Wales to implement lockdown, even if the sections mentioned are repealed or expire, it would not affect the enforcement of a future lockdown. Throughout the pandemic, the most drastic restrictions on individual liberty were created through the Public Health Act 1984 (PHA) – the government’s ability to put in place new restrictions under the PHA has not changed.
Read our emergency powers explainer for more information.
What does it say?
|Easing the burden on frontline staff and mitigating impact of staff shortages
Mitigating NHS staffing shortages
The Act enables the registration of recently retired health and social care professionals, medical students near the end of their training, and those who have recently left the profession.
The Act suspends restrictions on the number of hours retired staff who return to the NHS can work. It enables volunteers in the health and social care sectors to take unpaid leave with UK-wide compensation fund.
The Act also provides provision to facilitate emergency volunteering.
Easing pressure on NHS and local authority resources
The Act allows NHS providers to delay assessment of a patient’s need for ongoing nursing care before discharging.
The Act eases, in exceptional circumstances, the requirements on local authorities to conduct a “needs assessment” when it appears that an adult may have needs for care and support.The Act allows for powers to detain and treat patients for mental health disorders to be implemented using the opinion of fewer medical professionals.
Reducing administrative burden on frontline staff
The Act eases the regulations relating to the registration and certification of deaths and still-births, and permissions to conduct cremations.The Act remove the requirement that any inquest into a death from coronavirus be held with a jury in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (as is required by law for other notifiable diseases).
The Act enables the secretary of state and ministers in devolved administrations to provide an indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities arising from NHS activities.
Management of dead bodiesA national authority or designated local authority has the power to require organisations to provide facilities, premises, vehicles or services to manage capacity problems in the transportation, storage and disposal of dead bodies.
Modifying requirements under the Investigatory Powers Act
Warrants under the investigatory powers act must be signed by the secretary of state and one of 15 judicial commissioners. Because Covid-19-related sickness may result in a shortage of commissioners, the Act will allow additional judicial commissioners to be appointed on a temporary basis and the appointments process to be amended.
Usually, judicial commissioners must retrospectively approve a warrant within three days of it being made. To relieve pressure on commissioners, the Act allows this period to be extended to a maximum of 12 days. Warrants are usually valid for a maximum of five days. The bill extends this period to a maximum of 12 days.
Extension of time limits for retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles
The Act allows the government to extend the period for which fingerprints and DNA profiles may be retained for up to six months if the secretary of state considers that coronavirus is having, or is likely to have, an adverse effect on the capacity of those responsible for national security decisions and it is in the interests of national security to retain fingerprints or DNA profiles.
|Containing and slowing the spread of the virus
Suspending port operations
The Act provides powers to suspend port operations if shortages in Border Force staff mean there are insufficient resources to secure the border. Initial decisions to suspend port operations can be taken by senior Border Force Officials on behalf of the Secretary of State. Suspensions for more than 12 hours must be taken by ministers.
Powers relating to potentially infectious persons
The government has already passed secondary legislation to give public officials in England emergency powers to test, isolate and detain a person where they have reasonable grounds to think that the person is infected. The Act puts those powers on a statutory footing and extends them to authorities across the whole UK.Someone who breaches a direction given under these powers commits an offence and is punishable by a fine.
Powers regarding public gatherings and premises
The Act gives ministers, including in the devolved administrations, the power to restrict or prohibit gatherings or events, and the power to close or restrict access to premises. The minister can only use this power if they have made an official declaration that the virus constitutes a “serious and imminent” threat to public health, and that using the powers would either help to control the transmission of the virus, or would facilitate the most appropriate deployment of medical/emergency resources.Someone who breaches such a direction commits an offence, punishable by a fine.
Vaccinations in Scotland
At present only medical practitioners or those acting under their control can administer vaccinations in Scotland. The Act allows a wider range of health professionals to do so.
The Act gives ministers, including in the devolved administrations, the power to require the temporary closure of a school or registered childcare provider. When a minister has given such a direction, the institution must take reasonable steps to stop people attending the premises for a specified period. The minister can also make more specific directions about particular parts of the premises or particular people.
Ministers have to take advice from public health officials before using these powers.
Technology in court
The Act makes several provisions for parties and witnesses in court proceedings to appear by live link, rather than in person. It also provides that, where someone is appealing a government decision to restrict their activities to the magistrates’ court, they appear by live link.
Statutory sick pay
The Act enables the government to make regulations to allow certain employers to reclaim the cost of providing statutory sick pay to their employees from HMRC for Covid-19-related absences. It also makes statutory sick pay payable from day one, rather than day four, of sickness. The government hopes this will remove a disincentive to workers staying at home when they are infected.
Rules preventing those in receipt of NHS pensions returning to work will be suspended. The government hopes this will remove a disincentive to retired health professionals returning to work.
National Insurance Contributions
The Act will temporarily reduce the requirements for changing rates of National Insurance Contributions.
Residential tenancies – protection from eviction: In the Commons, the government introduced new provisions extending the statutory notice period for evictions for most residential tenancies from two months to three months.
Business tenancies – protection from forfeiture: In the Commons, the government introduced new provisions temporarily restricting the ability to enforce re-entry or forfeiture for nonpayment of rent.
The Act gives the government power to require food suppliers and retailers to provide information relating to food supply chains.
|Postponing elections (see our explainer)
The May 2020 elections
The Act postpones elections due in May 2020 for local councillors, mayors of local and combined authorities, police commissioners, the mayor of London and London Assembly until May 2021.
Terms of office
Councillors, mayors of local authorities and combined authorities, London Assembly members, and police commissioners elected in 2021 will serve for three years instead of four.
The Act postpones any by-elections to local authorities, the Westminster and devolved legislatures, and other electoral events until May 2021.
|Exercise of powers and parliamentary scrutiny
When provisions in the Act take effect
Some provisions of the Act (such as the emergency registration of health professionals) take effect on Royal Assent. Others, including those relating to emergency volunteers, temporary modifications to mental health legislation and food supply only take effect when a UK government minister (or, in some cases, a minister of the devolved administrations) makes a regulation switching them on.
Power to turn provisions on and off
This allows UK ministers (and in some cases ministers of the devolved administrations) to make regulations to turn some measures in the Act on and off as needed. Ministers may make different regulations for different purposes or areas. Many measures, including powers relating to potentially infectious people and to limit events and gatherings cannot be turned on and off in this way.
|89 and 98
How long measures will last for
Most of the Act will stop having effect two years after it is passed. Some provisions, including certain provisions relating to the emergency registration of health professionals and indemnity of health service activity do not expire after two years.
Following government amendments in the Commons, MPs will now have an opportunity to express a view on the continued operation of the Act’s temporary provisions every six months. Every six months, a minister must, ‘as far as practicable’ make arrangements for MPs to vote to keep the provisions of the Act in force. If MPs are able to vote and vote to stop against keeping the provisions of the Act in force, the government must make regulations to prevent provisions having effect within 21 days. MPs will only be able to vote on the continuation of the powers if parliament is sitting. If they are not able to vote, the powers will remain in force.
Power to change the expiry date of the Act
A UK minister (and in some cases a minister of the devolved authorities) may make a regulation to extend some provisions of the Act beyond the two-year time period (for a maximum of six months). The time period may also be reduced.
Reports on the use of the Act
The Act requires the government to publish a report every two months on the use of the non-devolved aspects of the legislation. If parliament is not sitting on the day the report is due, it can be published instead, for example on a government website.
Parliamentary debate on non-devolved aspects of the Act after one year
The Act requires a parliamentary debate to be held in both Houses of Parliament one year after Royal Assent (so long as key provisions of the Act remain in force at that time). If parliament is not sitting at the time, the debate must be scheduled within 14 days of parliament returning.
|Procedures for making regulations
|The exercise of powers in the Act is subject to different levels of scrutiny, including:
The Act also contains powers to make directions, arrangements, guidance or determinations, which are not subject to parliamentary procedure.
- Cabinet Office, COVID-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021, 14 September 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-response-autumn-and-winter-plan-2021