Emergency laws to deal with COVID-19 unveiled

  • Peter Russell
  • Medscape UK
  • 18 Mar 2020

  • UK Medical News
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Emergency laws to deal with COVID-19 are being laid before Parliament this week.

They are intended to save lives, protect public health, and ensure that the NHS and social care system is not overwhelmed by the outbreak, the Government said.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said measures in the legislation "will only be used when it is absolutely necessary and must be timed to maximise their effectiveness".

New powers, expected to be available from the end of March, would:

  • Enable recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work without any negative repercussions to their pensions

  • Allow some student medics nearing the end of training to work in the health system

  • Provide an indemnity for clinical negligence liabilities for those providing care, including health professionals working outside their normal areas of expertise

  • Reduce paperwork and administration to help doctors discharge patients more quickly when clinically appropriate

  • Provide volunteers in the health and social care system with employment protection to allow them to pause their jobs for up to 4 weeks

  • Change councils' duties under the Care Act to enable them to prioritise people with the greatest care needs and make the best use of the adult social care workforce

Sunset Clause

The new law would also allow police and immigration officials to arrest, detain, and isolate people who could cause a risk to public health.

The powers would enable people to be detained and treated under mental health legislation using the opinion of just one doctor, rather than the current two.

Schools and childcare providers could also be compelled to stay open, or operate with a larger ratio of children to teachers, to ensure that healthcare workers and other critical staff were able to go to work.

Changes are also proposed for current rules around managing deceased people. These include relaxing regulations for informing a coroner of a death, and speeding up the process of arranging funerals.

A 'sunset clause' means the measures contained in the bill will expire after 2 years, unless Parliament decides to extend them.

Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's chief medical adviser, said: "Our approach to responding to this outbreak has and will remain driven by the scientific and clinical evidence so we do the right thing at the right time.

"The measures included in this bill will help support our frontline workers, protect the public, and delay the peak of the virus to the summer months when the NHS is typically under less pressure."

Mr Hancock said: "By planning for the worst and working for the best we will get through this, but this is a national effort and we must all work together."

Adapted from Medscape UK.