The Coronavirus Bill, yesterday passed through the House of Commons and is going through the House of Lords today (24 March). The Bill will return to MPs for scrutiny on Thursday, 26 March, and is likely to be signed into law by the end of Thursday.
The Bill gives the government unprecedented, wide-ranging powers during the crisis we face with COVID-19. The powers relate to the following main areas:
- Health and social care – including emergency registration of staff and ensuring our NHS can run smoothly with higher rates of staff absences related to COVID 19. The Bill also relaxes rules around detention under mental health laws.
- Childcare and education settings – giving the government power to close schools.
- Sick Pay – allowing employers to reclaim statutory sick pay funds from HMRC to help with the burden of increased staff absence. It will scrap the three-day waiting period so that works can get sick pay from the day they stop working.
- Managing the deceased – organisations could be required to provide space or resources for the storage or management of dead bodies.
- Local councils – existing duties requiring councils to meet the eligible needs of vulnerable older people, disabled people, and young adults with social care needs about to leave the children’s care system will be suspended and councils will be allowed to prioritise care for those they consider most at risk if adult social care services become overwhelmed by surging demand or staff absences.
- Restricting movement – restricting events or closing down venues if they pose a threat to public health. It also puts into law powers to isolate or detain individuals who are judged to be a risk to containing the spread of Covid-19.
- Food supply – so the food supply chain is effectively managed during the crisis, the government will be allowed to intervene to prevent anyone suspected of disrupting food distribution.
- Courts and tribunals – increasing the use of audio and video links in courts to ease pressure on frontline services.
- Controlling Borders – officials will have the power to close the borders in the event that the Border Force is under intense pressure due to staffing shortages.
- Elections – postponing elections including the local council and mayoral elections on 7 May.
- Sunset clause – the legislation will expire two years after the Bill is passed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has stressed that the powers in the bill would only be used “when strictly necessary” and would remain in force only for as long as required to respond to the crisis. While unprecedented measures need to be taken, and public safety has to come first to tackle this crisis, I am, of course, worried about the effect that these powers could have on civil liberties and vulnerable people. It is welcome that the government accepted the compromise offered by the Labour Party for the legislation to be reviewed every six months.
There are a number of provisions missing from the Bill, which I’d expected to see, including protection for renters, and I’m also hoping for an announcement of further measures to protect the incomes of self-employed and freelance workers soon. During the crisis, the Labour Party is calling for jobs and incomes to be underpinned with a comprehensive income protection scheme, for European-level statutory sick pay to be guaranteed for all workers from day one, and for Universal Credit to be increased, with a suspension of sanctions and an end to the 5-week wait.
The situation is very fast-moving, and I’ll share any new information as soon as I can. Please check my website www.kategreen.org/covid-19 for all the latest updates.