Update: The Coronavirus Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020 and is due to complete its Commons stages on 23 March 2020. The House of Lords is due to consider the bill at second reading on 24 March 2020 with remaining stages completed on 25 March 2020. The House of Lords Library has published a separate briefing on the legislation. We also published the following new briefing on 23 March 2020, Coronavirus Bill: what emergency powers does the Government already have?

The spread of coronavirus has been declared a global public health emergency. In late 2019, authorities in China reported an outbreak of a pneumonia-like disease in Wuhan province. The disease was subsequently identified as a form of coronavirus, known as novel Wuhan coronavirus or Covid-19. By January 2020, there were thousands of confirmed cases in China and the virus had caused hundreds of deaths. On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern. The disease has since spread to other countries, with major outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and northern Italy.

As of 1pm on 20 March 2020, there were 3,983 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK and 177 reported deaths. In response, the Government has implemented an action plan and produced a range of guidance and public information. This article focuses on the emergency legislation the Government has introduced, and plans to introduce, to help contain the virus in the UK.

Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020

The Government has introduced emergency regulations to prevent the further spread of coronavirus. The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 were laid before Parliament on 10 February 2020. They give health professionals the power to detain patients with Covid-19 for the specific purposes of screening and assessment, or to isolate them for a period of time. The regulations also empower police constables to detain people suspected of having the virus. The Government has stated that the regulations are intended to apply to people who attempt to “leave supported isolation before the current quarantine period of 14 days is complete”.

The regulations were issued under the emergency procedure in section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (as amended by the Health and Social Care Act 2008). The regulations were ‘made affirmative’ instruments, meaning they entered into force immediately and would only cease to have effect if either House of Parliament failed to approve them within 28 days. They have a sunset clause of two years, meaning they will automatically expire after that time, unless Parliament decides to extend them.

The House of Lords debated and approved the regulations on 9 March 2020. During the debate, the Government minister, Lord Bethell, stated that the regulations were a “proportionate and necessary” element of the containment phase, designed to slow down transmission of the virus. There was general cross-party support for the regulations. However, some Opposition members raised concerns about how the powers (which apply to England only) might interact with similar powers in the devolved nations. Lord Bethell stated that the Government was working with the devolved nations to ensure they had sufficient powers to deal with the virus. He also stated that formalising the regulations across all the nations of the UK may be done through a coronavirus bill, which would be introduced “later this month” (ie March 2020).

Proposed emergency bill

The Government has said that responding to a wider pandemic of coronavirus may require further emergency legislation. The Government announced on 8 March 2020 that it intended to introduce a “Covid-19 emergency bill”. The bill’s powers would include:

  • Expansion of court hearings by television and video link;
  • “Additional employment safeguards” for those who volunteer in the health and social care system, so they can “leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a widespread pandemic”; and
  • A range of previously announced measures, such as emergency registration of health professionals who have retired, and relaxation of rules around staff to pupil ratios in education and childcare settings.

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, referred to the bill in the House of Commons on 9 March 2020, but did not give any further details about its contents. However, he did say that its powers would be “temporary and proportionate”. Opposition parties were generally supportive of a bill in principle, but Mr Hancock agreed that it should be “taken through on a cross-party basis”.

The Government has not yet published the proposed bill or introduced it in Parliament. On 17 March 2020, the Government published a guidance document providing further information on the bill. The guidance document said the bill was intended to enable the UK government and the devolved administrations to take action in the following five areas:

  1. Increasing the available health and social care workforce—by removing barriers to allow recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work (and in Scotland, in addition to retired people, allowing those who are on a career break or are social worker students to become temporary social workers).
  2. Easing the burden on frontline staff—by reducing the number of administrative tasks they have to perform, enabling local authorities to prioritise care for people with the most pressing needs, allowing key workers to perform more tasks remotely and with less paperwork, and taking the power to suspend individual port operations.
  3. Containing and slowing the virus—by reducing unnecessary social contacts, for example through powers over events and gatherings, and strengthening the quarantine powers of police and immigration officers.
  4. Managing the deceased with respect and dignity—by enabling the death management system to deal with increased demand for its services.
  5. Supporting people – by allowing them to claim statutory sick pay from day one, and by supporting the food industry to maintain supplies.

This guidance document also said the Government was aiming for the legislation to reach the statute book and begin to take effect from the end of March 2020. The Government also said provisions relating to statutory sick pay were intended to have retrospective effect to 13 March 2020. The guidance document also indicated that the legislation would be time-limited for 2 years. The new powers in the bill could be ‘switched on or off’ by the UK government and the devolved administrations, based on the advice of Chief Medical Officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As the Government has described the bill as emergency legislation, it may use the process of expedited legislation, whereby multiple stages of the bill’s passage in the House of Commons are completed on the same day. The Government has less control over the timetable for expediting legislation in the House of Lords. However, there are precedents for the House of Lords completing multiple bill stages on the same day to expedite terrorism or Brexit related legislation. On 18 March 2020, the Government Whips Office in the Lords announced the House of Lords is expected to consider the emergency COVID-19 legislation on 25 and 26 March 2020.

What other powers exist to deal with emergencies?

The Government has a range of additional powers to deal with civil emergencies. Part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 allows the Government to make regulations to deal with an emergency that “threatens serious damage to human welfare”. The definition of an emergency includes events that may involve or cause human illness, loss of life, or disruption to health services or food supplies. Regulations made under the act may have a potentially wide scope, including powers to:

  • prohibit or require the movement of people to or from specified places;
  • prohibit assemblies of certain kinds; and
  • create offences of failing to comply with the regulations.

Section 27 of the act provides for parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations. They must be laid before Parliament as soon as is “reasonably practicable” after they have been made. The regulations lapse after seven days unless “each House of Parliament passes a resolution approving them”.

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