Jim Kennedy: 5 min read

The Coronavirus Act 2020: Social Care Briefing

A big thank you to our colleagues at our sister organisation CareKnowledge for allowing us to reproduce and share their content on the Coronavirus Act 2020. CareKnowledge publishes professional development, research and policy information for the social care sector. The emergency legislation gives the Government the powers it believes it needs to take forward its plans for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. The Briefing focuses, in particular, on the aspects of the Act that have a direct impact on social care services. 

This CareKnowledge Briefing is designed to give a broad insight into elements of the Act, and should not be seen as any form of technical guidance on its precise content. We hope you find it a useful resource. 

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.

On the 26th of March, the Government published a detailed outline of what the then Bill was intended to achieve. This Briefing uses that document as a major source for what follows. Given the date of the publication, we can assume its reference to the Bill can nonetheless be seen to give an accurate overview of the Act.

In preparing this Briefing we have also looked at the Explanatory Notes for the Bill and at the relevant House of Lords Library Briefing. The Institute for Government has also produced a helpful synopsis of the Act which we have used as a source of reference for this Briefing.

The Coronavirus 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 legislation will be time-limited – for 2 years – and not all of these measures will come into force immediately. The Bill was designed to allow the 4 UK governments to switch on these new powers when they are needed, and, crucially, to switch them off again once they are no longer necessary, based on the advice of Chief Medical Officers of the 4 nations.

The Act/Bill’s powers include:

  • emergency registration of health professionals and social workers
  • provision of indemnity insurance for health workers and compensation schemes for health service volunteers
  • amendments to mental health legislation, to allow certain functions relating to the detention and treatment of patients to be satisfied by fewer doctors’ opinions or certifications
  • closure of educational establishments, powers to force educational and childcare providers to remain open, and the relaxing of staff-child ratios in educational settings
  • 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
  • reforms to death management processes, including the registering of deaths and the transport and disposal of dead bodies
  • postponement of local and mayoral elections, which had been planned in May 2020.

In more detail, the Bill/Act enables action in 5 key areas:

  • increasing the available health and social care workforce – for example, 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)
  • 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
  • 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
  • managing the deceased with respect and dignity – by enabling the death management system to deal with increased demand for its services
  • increasing the available health and social care workforce – for example, 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)
  • 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.

Under the action to increase the health and care workforce, the Act will:

  • enable regulators to emergency register suitable people as regulated healthcare professionals, such as nurses, midwives or paramedics. This might include (but will not be limited to) recently retired professionals and students who are near the end of their training
  • enable regulators to temporarily add social workers to their registers who may have recently left the profession
  • enable employees and workers to take Emergency Volunteer Leave in blocks of 2, 3 or 4 weeks’ statutory unpaid leave and establish a UK-wide compensation fund to compensate for loss of earnings and expenses incurred at a flat rate for those who volunteer through an appropriate authority
  • provide indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities arising from NHS activities carried out for the purposes of dealing with, or because of, the coronavirus outbreak, where there is no existing indemnity arrangement in place
  • suspend the rule that currently prevents some NHS staff who return to work after retirement from working more than 16 hours per week, along with rules on abatements and draw-down of NHS pensions that apply to certain retirees who return to work

Under action to ease the burden on frontline staff, both within the NHS and beyond, the Act will:

  • enable existing mental health legislation powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder and are a risk to themselves or others, to be implemented using just one doctor’s opinion (rather than the current 2)
  • temporarily allow extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation to allow for greater flexibility where services are less able to respond
  • allow NHS providers to delay undertaking the assessment process for NHS continuing healthcare for individuals being discharged from hospital until after the emergency period has ended
  • make changes to the Care Act 2014 in England and the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 to enable local authorities to prioritise the services they offer in order to ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met, even if this means not meeting everyone’s assessed needs in full or delaying some assessments
  • Local authorities will still be expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period and these amendments would not remove the duty of care they have towards an individual’s risk of serious neglect or harm. These powers would only be used if demand pressures and workforce illness during the pandemic meant that local authorities were at imminent risk of failing to fulfil their duties and only last the duration of the emergency
  • temporarily relax local authorities’ duties in relation to their duties to conduct a needs assessment and prepare an adult carer support plan/young care statement under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, the Social Care (Self-directed Support) (Scotland) Act 2013 and the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016 to enable them to prioritise people with the greatest needs
  • Government intends to issue detailed guidance on the changes that the Bill allows in relation to the provision of social care
  • provide powers to require educational institutions or childcare providers to stay open or relax some requirements around education legislation in order to help these institutions run effectively during the event of an emergency
  • expand availability of video and audio link in court proceedings

Under action to delay and slow the virus, the Act will:

  • enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic
  • provide a temporary power to close educational establishments or childcare providers
  • postpone the local, mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections that were due to take place in England in May this year until May 2021
  • enable the departments of health in Northern Ireland and Scotland to make regulations for additional measures to be introduced to help them delay or prevent further transmission of COVID-19. Equivalent powers already exist in England and Wales and these provisions would bring them in line with the rest of the UK
  • remove a restriction in how Scottish territorial Health Boards can deliver vaccination programmes so a wider range of healthcare professionals in Scotland would be able to administer a vaccine.

Under action to manage the deceased with respect and dignity, the Act will:

  • mean a coroner is only to be notified where a doctor believes there is no medical practitioner who may sign the death certificate, or that they are not available within a reasonable time of the death
  • introduce powers to enable the provisions under the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 relating to the collection of ashes to be suspended and replaced with a duty to retain until the suspension is lifted, except where family wishes are known
  • expand the list of people who can register a death to include funeral directors acting on behalf of the family
  • enable electronic transmission of documents that currently have to be physically presented in order to certify the registration of a death
  • remove the need for a second confirmatory medical certificate in order for a cremation to take place
  • remove the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 requirement that any inquest into a COVID-19 death must be held with a jury
  • suspend the referral of certificates to the Death Certification Review Service (DCRS) for review in Scotland under the Certification of Death (Scotland) Act 2011. The timing of the suspension to be at the discretion of Scottish ministers

Under action to protect and support people, the Act will:

  • give the government the power to temporarily suspend the rule that means statutory sick pay (SSP) is not paid for the first 3 days of work that you miss because of sickness
  • enable employers with fewer than 250 employees to reclaim SSP paid for sickness absences relating to coronavirus during the period of the outbreak
  • require industry to provide information about food supplies, in the event that an industry partner does not co-operate with our current voluntary information-sharing arrangements during a period of potential disruption

More detailed issues (from the Explanatory Notes)

As noted earlier, Government intends to issue detailed guidance on the changes that the Bill allows in relation to the provision of social care.

The Bill will provide that newly employed workers in social care services in Scotland will have a longer period of time to complete their registration, increasing this from 6 months to 12 months.

In Scotland, the Bill will allow the Scottish Ministers to relax certain requirements under the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 to allow the disclosure service to better cope in an emergency and continue to support recruitment in key sectors.

The Bill includes three powers relating to education:

  • a power to require/direct temporary closure of an educational institution or registered childcare provider
  • a power to make specified types of directions in connection with the running of the education and registered childcare systems; and
  • a power to dis-apply or vary specified existing requirements contained in or arising out of education and childcare legislation.

The Bill creates a power to make regulations to relax some requirements in relation to Local Authority meetings for a specified period.

As with the emergency registration of healthcare professionals, the regulator or registrar for social workers must be satisfied that the emergency registration requirement is met, i.e. that the person or persons are “fit, proper and suitably experienced to be registered” with regard to the emergency. It will be at the discretion of the regulator or registrar to determine who to register on a temporary basis. Conditions of practise may be imposed, and the regulator or registrar may revoke the registration at any time including where they suspect that the person’s fitness to practise may be impaired. The regulator or registrar must revoke the registration if the Secretary of State advises the regulator or registrar that the circumstances leading to a notification of an emergency no longer exist.

Similar conditions apply to the registration of social workers in Scotland, through the SSSC.

The Explanatory Notes provide detailed information on the effects of the Act as they relate to issues of mental capacity, across the home nations. (Paras 24 to 29)

Policy concerns

A number of bodies have raised concerns about the potential impact of the legislation on Human Rights and on some of the groups of people who will be affected. This note from Human Rights Watch summarises some of those concerns

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