What’s in the coronavirus bill?

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As the rate of coronavirus infections and the UK’s response to the pandemic both escalate, the coronavirus bill has now been published. The bill will give the UK’s four governments a wide range of powers to respond to different aspects of the situation, with major implications for society as a whole, including charities.

These are some of the most relevant provisions for charities and some of our initial thoughts.

Emergency volunteering leave

The bill will introduce ‘emergency volunteering leave’ to make it easier for employees to volunteer in the current crisis. Employees will be able to take blocks of two, three or four weeks of unpaid leave to do this, with the government setting up a compensation fund to cover loss of earnings and expenses at a flat rate.

This is welcome – the volunteering need is huge and growing. But the details of the compensation fund will be crucial. We’re waiting to see exactly the fund will cover, what the rate of compensation will be and how people can access it, as well as more on what it will mean for employers. Organisations with under 10 employees will be exempt from these provisions.

The bill will also make changes to statutory sick pay (SSP) in line with the announcements in the budget. The government is changing the law to remove the current three-day period in which SSP can’t be claimed, and to allow employers with under 250 employees to claim SSP where absences are linked to coronavirus.

Social care

The bill aims to help increase the available health and social care workforce in several ways.

It will remove barriers to retired NHS staff and social workers returning to work, for example by getting rid of the hit they would take to their pensions under current rules if they worked for more than 16 hours a week. It will also reduce some administrative responsibilities to make it easier for frontline staff to operate in current circumstances.

At the moment there are a number of health and social care services that councils are legally obliged to provide. The bill will change the Care Act 2014 in England, and equivalent legislation for Wales (some provision is also made for Scotland), to allow local authorities to prioritise the services so they can make sure that the most urgent and serious care needs are met, even if it means councils not meeting all of someone’s assessed needs or delaying assessments. It does not remove the duty of care they have towards an individual’s risk of serious neglect or harm. The government says these powers would only be used if local authorities were at imminent risk of failing to fulfil their legal duties and that this would only last during the emergency.

These changes have major implications and raise a number of questions – notably how councils will decide who is at imminent risk and who is not, and support for people with very complex healthcare needs. It’ll be really important that councils engage with the voluntary sector to do all they can, where they have capacity, to fulfil statutory duties and fill the gaps likely to be left as councils are stretched much further.

The seriousness of the situation is very clear, but charities are likely to want as much assurance as the government can provide that the impact on people with support needs will be reduced as far as possible.

Powers to restrict and prohibit events and gatherings

The bill will allow the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic. It will also have the power, where necessary, to close premises. For orders to close schools and childcare facilities (or to keep them open), ministers must have regard to the views of the chief medical officer (CMO) as to the spread of coronavirus. For other orders in this group, they need only consult the CMO or one of his deputies.

These powers obviously reduce the scope for charitable activity depending on how they’re used – and, more broadly, the scope for people coming together and social interaction. But of course, charities are acutely aware that we’re in an unprecedentedly serious situation and not in normal times.

We recognise that the scale of the impact of coronavirus is such that some exceptional measures are going to be necessary. But charities will want to see clear assurances that these powers are temporary in their entirety, and clarity about the criteria which will be used in triggering them.

Ministers should also explain why the triggering of other powers of this kind will not require ministers to have regard to the CMO’s views. A consistent approach here would still give ministers discretion, while tying the powers more closely to scientific advice.

Timings: How long the new powers last

The powers in the bill will expire after two years, and not all of them will be used immediately. Ministers can make regulations to make them expire earlier with the approval of both Houses of Parliament. They can also lay regulations to extend them by up to six months at any one time. These have to be laid before parliament. They expire 40 days after they are laid without approval by parliament, but no account is taken of days on which parliament is dissolved, prorogued or adjourned.

Given the likely length of the epidemic, we understand why the powers are due to be available for a significant period of time. But we have concerns about the way the 40-day period might operate in a context where parliament may potentially be unable to meet for a prolonged period, especially given that multiple extensions can be provided for by the same procedure. We’d want further safeguards to be considered here if at all possible.

There ought to be as much parliamentary scrutiny of the powers’ use and duration as possible. The bill provides for a debate after the one-year mark: we would welcome moves to strengthen the influence of parliament in the use and duration of these powers within the two-year period.


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Avatar photo Douglas Dowell is one of NCVO's senior policy officers, working mainly on charity law and regulation.

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