The Coronavirus Act 2020 became law on 25 March 2020. The Government introduced this emergency legislation in response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in the UK. This article summarises how the bill changed as it passed through Parliament.
What does the Coronavirus Act do?
The Act gives the Government and public bodies a range of temporary powers to manage the effects of the pandemic. The powers include:
- emergency registration of health workers and NHS volunteers;
- amendments to mental health legislation, to allow certain functions concerning the detention and treatment of patients to be satisfied by fewer doctors’ opinions or certifications;
- relaxing of duties on local authorities to provide certain levels of social care to the elderly and disabled;
- closure of educational establishments and the relaxing of staff-child ratios;
- detention of those suspected of being infected with Covid-19, for the purposes of screening and assessment;
- restrictions on public gatherings, the movement of transport, and the closure of ports and airports; and
- reforms to death management processes, including the registering of deaths and the transport and disposal of dead bodies.
How did the bill change in the Commons
The Act has a sunset clause (section 89, as enacted). This means the Act’s provisions automatically expire two years after the Act came into force. The timescale in which the Act expires was debated in the House of Commons. Following the initial publication of the bill, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, stated that although the Opposition broadly supported it, he believed that a vote in the House of Commons to renew the powers should be required every six months.
On 23 March 2020, the same day that the House of Commons considered the bill, the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee published its report on the bill. It concluded that, due to the emergency nature of the bill’s passage and the lack of time for proper parliamentary scrutiny, the powers should expire after one year, not two. The report said:
[…] Had the country not been in the midst of a developing national emergency, there are powers in this bill, including far-reaching Henry VIII powers, about which our commentary would have been far more trenchant and our recommendations far more robust. Given this, we have recommended that the expiry date for the bill should be set at one year without a power to extend—not two years, with the possibility of extension—thereby enabling the Government to exercise the powers needed in the immediate future while allowing a further bill to be introduced and subject to parliamentary scrutiny in slower time.
In response to opposition and Conservative backbench amendments, the Government tabled a compromise amendment that provided for a six-month parliamentary review. If the House of Commons voted against the extension of the Act’s powers after six months, the Government must ensure the powers expire within 21 days. The amendment was agreed without division. This review is required by section 98 of the Act.
Other government changes
Several other government amendments were also agreed. The majority made minor drafting and technical changes. Other government amendments related to issues such as: allowing the postponement of Church of England General Synod elections; protection from eviction for residential and business tenants; and to take account of the concerns of faith groups (particularly from Muslim and Jewish communities) relating to the disposal of dead bodies.
For further information on the House of Commons amendments relating to the expiry and scrutiny of the Act’s powers, see: House of Commons Library, ‘Coronavirus Bill: Amended time limits and post-legislative review’, 25 March 2020.
Lords scrutiny of the bill: Overview
- oversight of the changes to local authorities’ duty to provide social care;
- support for the self-employed;
- a proposal to make temporary changes to abortion legislation to allow early medical abortions achieved by taking a pill to be administered at home, rather than the necessity to visit a clinic;
- the expiry date of the bill’s provisions; and
- the necessity and proportionality with which the bill’s powers would be exercised, particularly their adherence with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010.
The majority of the 14 amendments were not moved. Several were moved and debated, but later withdrawn following assurances given by the Government minister.
Changes in social care standards amendment
Baroness Thornton (Labour) moved amendment 1 that would have set up a monitoring body to oversee the changes to standards of social care provided by local authorities. She said it would provide an “independent voice” for the elderly and housebound, and the disabled.
Speaking for the Government, Lord Bethell, minister at the Department of Health and Social Care, said the Government did not support the amendment. He said that the Government hoped that the provisions on social care would “never come into play”. If they did, he said various safeguards remained in place: the Care Quality Commission would continue to provide “independent expert regulation” of care providers; and legislation to safeguard vulnerable people from neglect and abuse remained in place.
Further sunset clause amendments
Several amendments concerned the expiry of powers in the bill, or to their scrutiny by Parliament:
|7, 8 and 9||Would have reduced the expiry period of the bill from two years to three months.||Lord Newby and Baroness Barker (Liberal Democrat)|
|10||Related to section 97 (as enacted), which requires the Government to make a report to Parliament every two months setting out which powers in the bill were still in force. The amendment would have required the report to also set out the Government’s explanation of why the powers were in force.||Lord Anderson of Ipswich (Crossbench) and Baroness Ludford (Liberal Democrat|
|11||Would have allowed certain provisions to expire if a minister laid a motion before Parliament to that effect.||Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)|
|12||Related to section 98, which requires a vote in the House of Commons to renew the Act’s powers after six months. The amendment sought a similar debate and indicative vote in the House of Lords (ie the Lords vote would have been non-binding on the Government).||Lord Newby and Baroness Barker (Liberal Democrat|
Government response to sunset clause amendments
Responding to the amendments for the Government, Earl Howe, deputy leader of the House of Lords, said that the timescale of two years for the bill’s expiry had been chosen because in a “worst case scenario” the effects of the pandemic may last over a year. He pointed out that the powers could not be renewed after two years without being approved by both Houses of Parliament.
On scrutiny, Earl Howe said the Government had “no intention” of using the powers without account to Parliament. He said there would be ample opportunity for both Houses to scrutinise and debate any powers used within the two-year period. On the two-monthly reports to Parliament, Earl Howe gave assurances that the Government would “provide evidence and explanation” in justifying why certain powers remained in force.
Human rights amendment
Liberal Democrats Baroness Ludford and Lord Scriven with Lord Anderson of Ipswich (Crossbench) tabled amendment 13. The amendment would have required that the bill’s powers be exercised in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010, with respect to their “necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination”.
Baroness Ludford said that, although the Government had made a declaration that the bill was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, her amendment would provide further reassurance.
Lord Anderson made a similar point, stating that although the amendment “had no legal effect”, because the bill did not seek to repeal or amend the Human Rights Act or the Equality Act, further assurances from the Government would send “a powerful signal” that the UK was not abandoning “fundamental legal and moral principles”.
Lord Bethell replied that the Government was “100% committed” to protecting human rights, and that nothing in the bill allowed the Government to “breach or disapply” the Human Rights Act or the Equality Act. He confirmed that nothing in the bill contradicted the European Convention on Human Rights.
As was the case with the other amendments which had been moved and debated, amendment 13 was withdrawn and the House of Lords passed the bill without amendment.
- House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Coronavirus Bill, 23 March 2020, HL Paper 42 of session 2019–21
- House of Lords Constitution Committee, Coronavirus Bill, 24 March 2020, HL Paper 44 of session 2019–21
- House of Lords Library, Coronavirus Bill: emergency Covid-19 legislation, 20 March 2020
Cover image by iXimus from Pixabay.