In response to COVID-19 , the UK Government has fast tracked emergency legislation through Parliament to give wide-ranging and unprecedented powers to ministers to help deal with the pandemic.
It took just three days for the 329 pages long bill to pass through both the House of Lords and House of Commons, and the bill received royal assent on 25th March 2020, bringing into force the Coronavirus Act 2020.
The Act has five primary categories of effect:
- Easing pressure on frontline staff and increasing the health and social care workforce
- Easing legislative and regulatory requirements
- Putting measures and controls in place to contain and slow the virus
- Managing the deceased
- Supporting individuals and businesses.
This article will focus on the key provisions of the Act, in particular the final category, which is the main area of interest for business owners and employees.
Most of the new powers and measures are simply practical and should be relatively uncontroversial; including:
- Expanding the availability of video and audio links in court proceedings;
- Allowing retired health or social care professionals to be readmitted onto regulated registers, without loss of any pension rights; and
- Allowing for the temporary closure of schools and providing for temporary continuity measures in place.
Some of the more controversial new measures include:
- Giving greater powers to the Secretary of State to prohibit or implement restrictions on the holding of events or gatherings during the outbreak. Any person in breach may commit an offence and may be liable to a fine.
- The Home Secretary will have power to close ports and airports if there is a risk to border security.
- Giving greater powers on the police to detain persons, for a limited period, who are or may be infectious, and to take them to a place for screening and assessment.
- Changes to mental health legislation to make it easier to detain and treat patients for example by reducing the number of doctors required to sign off on sectioning those with mental health issues.
Business owners and employees
The Act also contains important provisions in relation to businesses and employees and includes:
- Expanding entitlement to statutory sick pay (SSP) so that it is now available from the first day of sickness, as opposed to the fourth day of sickness.
- Businesses will be able to claim the cost of making SSP payments due to COVID-19 from HMRC. Previously, the full cost of SSP was met by the employer.
The rationale behind these changes by the Government is to ensure that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) receive financial support where they incur additional SSP costs due to absences relating to COVID-19.
How long will the Act be in force?
The legislation will be in force for a two-year period and will be reviewed by ministers every six months. It should be noted that not all of the measures contained within Act have come into force immediately, with some measures to be switched on and off as necessary to deal with the pandemic.
The situation with COVID-19 is changing on an almost hourly basis and it is likely there may be further amendments and additions to this Act in the coming months.
If you have any questions about how the coronavirus might impact your business, get in touch with our team of expert lawyers today.