What does the UK coronavirus bill mean?

By Louis Shankar

Updated May 18, 2020 at 05:46 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

There’s not much news around that doesn’t pertain to coronavirus right now. It already feels overwhelming. Does anyone else miss Brexit? Monday’s nationwide lockdown is to last for three weeks, at a minimum—such uncertainty is particularly worrisome. But some developments are particularly important, such as the passage of specific legislation through the UK Parliament to tackle the spread and damage of the virus.

What are the specific regulations put into place and how will they affect UK citizens?

Obviously, new and sweeping legislation is needed to grant the government and public services greater powers during the coronavirus pandemic. The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 provides powers needed to respond to the ongoing crisis and consists of four key categories: “enhancing capacity and the flexible deployment of staff; easing of legislative and regulatory requirements; containing and slowing the virus; and managing the deceased.”

What the UK’s coronavirus bill means

One of the most significant (and necessary) powers is the ability to restrict events and force the closure of spaces and premises, such as pubs and clubs. Boris Johnson already issued an order for pubs to close on Friday 20, and many venues had already closed voluntarily over the preceding week, but this bill formalised and clarified the legal powers going forward. It allows the British government to use the authorities to stop people entering premises and forcibly shut down any organised events.

The new law also establishes how people can sign up to become emergency volunteers, in order to ease the pressure on key areas of the NHS and social services. Furthermore, it allows recently retired medical staff and newly or nearly qualified medical students to work immediately, giving specific protections against possible negligence claims.

There are some particularly morbid details about the registration of deaths (feel free to skip forward a paragraph). Doctors will be able to sign death certificates without seeing a patient’s corpse—which seems astonishing—and only one medical certificate from one medical practitioner will be required to cremate a body (in England and Wales), undoing reforms that were brought in after the details of Harold Shipman’s deeds came to light.

Due to the urgent and temporary nature of the legislation, a formal impact assessment was not required; the bill did not undergo the usual processes of analysis and scrutiny, despite being drafted in just a few days.

In the first draft of the bill, these powers would have stayed in place for two years despite Johnson’s repeated claims that the worst of it will be over in twelve weeks. However, an amendment from Labour’s Harriet Harman, chair of the Committee on Human Rights, argued that this legislation should be debated and renewed every six months: the government has since introduced its own amendment to the same effect.

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr tweeted out notes sent to her by an experienced regulatory lawyer who voiced concerns about some of the specifics of the bill. “In essence, the proposed law is far wider reaching than defeating the virus,” they explained, citing, “Major changes to NHS and social care, including refusal to treat and charging for treatment, not limited to where there’s a high number of coronavirus cases,” and, “Drastic measures allowing police and immigration officers to hold people for up to 48 hours.”

This legislation allows constables and immigration officers to detain or isolate “a person who is, or may be, infectious during the course of their normal functions at the border or while exercising immigration enforcement functions in country.” The lack of specificity here, as well as the more pervasive paranoia, could easily be abused: might someone be deemed infectious for coughing?

Similarly, David Allen Green—a very experienced and useful legal commentator—provided an astute analysis of the first draft. “No extension of police coercive power should ever just be nodded through,” he tweeted. “There is a ratchet effect of any expansion of state power – as twenty years of terrorism legislation shows,” he explains. “If the executive can grab power, it will do so, especially when it can be justified by emergencies.”

https://twitter.com/davidallengreen/status/1240226362415349761

Certain clauses also allow councils, who provide much social care, to prioritise care for those considered to be most ‘at risk’. Disability and human rights campaigners have warned that this could easily endanger elderly and disabled people, depending on the exact definition of ‘most at risk’.

About the new bill, the charity Disability Rights UK said that “given the already broken social care system this bill will almost inevitably leave many thousands of disabled people without essential support or any rights to request this support.”

These are, of course, emergency measures and will only be activated, one hopes, when absolutely necessary. However, to put those at risk (both in general and specifically from coronavirus) further at risk seems like a flawed strategy. Let us hope such provisions never have to be used.

There is a lot to criticise about the UK government’s response to coronavirus—and a lot they can be given credit for. When this is all over, whenever that might be, there will need to be serious reflection and analysis. Until then, it’s a waiting game.

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