Emergency Measures to Deal With COVID-19 Become Law

Peter Russell

March 26, 2020

Emergency measures to deal with COVID-19 have now become law.

The Coronavirus Act includes powers for temporary registration of recently retired doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. 

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".

Protecting the Health and Social Care Sectors

MPs approved the measures which:

  • 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 also allows police and immigration officials to arrest, detain, and isolate people who could cause a risk to public health.

The powers 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 made to 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."

'Exceptional Times, Exceptional Measures' 

Commenting on the legislation in a statement, Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said: "In exceptional times, exceptional measures are necessary. Reducing paperwork, allowing staff to move outside of their normal duties and encouraging nearly qualified staff and those who may have recently retired into the workforce is welcome. It is key that the NHS uses the skills and experiences of these people appropriately to provide additional capacity in an across the NHS and Social Care.

"But these are hugely stressful, worrying and exhausting times for all healthcare staff and these measures won't change that. More than ever, doctors and their colleagues are putting their own health and wellbeing on the line and we must keep looking for ways in which to support and protect them in the coming weeks and months. The quicker that priority testing for NHS and Social care staff, and their families can be rolled out, the quicker staff will be able to return to the front line."

Editor's note, 27th March 2020: This article was updated to reflect the measures becoming law.

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