The UK Coronavirus Act | an overview

Written on 31 Mar 2020

This Insight sets out a high level summary of key parts of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which received royal assent and became law in the UK on 25 March 2020. The full text of the Act and near-final accompanying Explanatory Notes are available online.

The Act provides the legal basis for the current ‘lockdown’ of citizens and businesses, but it does a great deal more besides. Its expansive scope ranges from the food supply chain to the management of the deceased, to technical amendments needed to loosen up requirements and obligations around issues such as authorisations, vetting, home schooling. There are various measures to facilitate boosting staff numbers for healthcare and social services; provisions in relation to workers’ rights and entitlements; powers to enforce social distancing, powers to facilitate remote operation of the court system, provisions in relation to the emergency financial support measures, provisions in relation to local authorities and in relation to business and residential tenancies. The majority of the detail is contained in the extensive schedules to the Act.

All of the provisions in the Act are time limited for two years and not all the provisions came into force immediately (although a first statutory instrument bringing some of the delayed provisions into force was issued soon after). Measures can also be suspended and reactivated later. It will also be possible to extend or end the provisions of the Act, depending on the scientific evidence.

Definition (section 1)

“Coronavirus” is defined in the Act as meaning severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (the virus itself) and “coronavirus disease” means COVID-19 (the official designation of the disease which can be caused by coronavirus).

Emergency Registration of Healthcare Professionals (sections 2-5)

To help deal with an increase in medical requirements and staff shortages, this section allows the emergency temporary registration of regulated healthcare professionals.

Temporary Registration of Social Workers (sections 6-7)

These sections allow for the temporary registration of suitably experienced emergency social workers.

Emergency Volunteers (sections 8-9)

A new form of unpaid statutory leave will be introduced to compensate emergency volunteers. The intention is to prevent risk to employment and employment rights and loss of income.

Mental Health and Mental Capacity (section 10)

Temporary amendments allow for the detention and treatment of patients with reduced requirements for doctors’ opinions or certificates. Statutory time limits may also be extended or removed.

Health Service Indemnification (sections 11-13)

Provides indemnity cover against negligence claims arising out of treating COVID-19 patients as a safety net where there is insufficient alternative cover in place.

NHS and local authority care and support (sections 14-17)

Provisions to speed up discharge from hospital for patients with social care needs.

Registration of deaths and still-births etc (sections 18-21)

Provisions to allow a doctor who has not seen the deceased to certify the cause of death without the death being referred to the coroner. Increased flexibility for the system of registration of birth, deaths and still births and reduction of requirements to attend in person, and for cremation.

Investigatory Powers (sections 22-23)

A warrant under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (for the intelligence and law enforcement agencies) must be signed by the Secretary of State and approved by a judicial commissioner. Where more judicial commissioners are required (because of the effects of COVID-19), the Secretary of State can make temporary appointments (lasting between 6 and 12 months). The timespan of an urgent warrant can also be varied.

Fingerprints and DNA profiles (section 24)

Because the police may not have the resources to determine whether fingerprints and DNA profiles should be retained on file, these may be automatically deleted. The Act allows the deadlines for retaining this biometric material for reasons of national security to be extended.

Food Supply (sections 25-29)

A data sharing protocol has been agreed by government with food retailers. This information will allow food supply disruption to be addressed. The Act makes provision for where a food retailer or member of the food industry refuses to comply with voluntary requests for information.

The food supply chain is defined to include all those from the agriculture, fishing and aquaculture producers of food and drink at the top of the chain, to those selling to individuals for personal consumption at the end of the chain, and all intermediaries in between, as well as all closely connected suppliers to those businesses.

Inquests (sections 30-32)

Coroners will not have to conduct an inquest with a jury where it is suspected that a death was caused by COVID-19.

Disclosure: Wales and Scotland (sections 33-35)

Provisions enabling the Welsh and Scottish governments to alter the requirements for vetting certain staff.

Vaccinations: Scotland (section 36)

Provisions to loosen the requirements for who may administer vaccines in Scotland.

Schools, childcare providers etc (sections 37-38)

The Secretary of State can restrict attendance at schools and childcare premises. Three powers are given to the government: temporary closure; directions in connection with the running of education or childcare systems; and power to disapply or vary existing requirements.

Statutory Sick Pay (sections 39-44)

SSP is paid by an employer to sick employees at a flat rate for a maximum of 28 weeks. Provision is being made to allow companies which have paid statutory sick pay for an employee with coronavirus to recover some or all of that payment. The 3 day waiting period before payment of SSP will be disapplied.

Pensions (sections 45-47)

To not disincentivise retired healthcare professionals from returning to work, the Act will ensure that their pension entitlements will not be affected.

Protection of public health (sections 48-49)

Extends powers to make regulations to protect public health to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Powers to direct suspension of port operations (section 50)

As the Border Force may not have sufficient resources to maintain adequate border security, arrivals may be directed to key locations where there are sufficient Border Force officials. More specifically, port operators can be ordered to suspend relevant operations.

Powers relating to potentially infectious persons (section 51)

Includes provisions to screen and isolate potentially infectious persons across the UK with a consistent approach. People can be forced by the police or immigration officers to stay in certain places and to be screened and assessed.

Powers relating to events, gathering and premises (section 52)

Streamlines legislation allowing the Secretary of State to prohibit or restrict public events and gatherings and to close premises.

Courts and tribunals: use of video and audio technology (sections 53-57)

Amends existing legislation so as to enable the use of technology either in video/audio-enabled hearings in which one or more participants appear before the court using a live video or audio link, or by a wholly video/audio hearing where there is no physical courtroom and all participants take part in the hearing using telephone or video conferencing facilities.

The public will be able to see and hear proceedings by video or audio links and proceedings can be live streamed. It will be an offence to record or transmit live streamed proceedings and sound recordings of virtual hearings.

Powers in relation to bodies (section 58)

Additional organisations can become involved in the death management processes to ensure the deceased are treated with care and respect.

Postponement of elections, referendums, recall petitions and canvass (including Wales and Scotland) (sections 59-70)

Elections scheduled for 7 May 2020 are to be postponed until 6 May 2021. The Act allows for this postponement.

Other administrative requirements (section 71)

National Insurance Contributions (sections 72-74)

The Act will allow the Government to temporarily modify the existing procedures around introducing national insurance contribution changes, in order to respond quickly to the Covid-19 outbreak if required.

Financial assistance to Industry (section 75)

The £12 billion cap on financial assistance to industry under the Industrial Development Act 1982 does not apply if financial assistance is provided by government to address the impact of COVID-19 on industry.

HMRC functions (section 76)

The Act will enable HMRC to pay grants to businesses to deliver the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Under this Scheme, employers will be able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover most of the wages of people who are not working but are furloughed and kept on payroll. The Scheme will cover 80% of the salary of workers retained, up to a total of £2,500 per month. It will cover the cost of wages backdated to 1st March 2020 and will be open initially for at least three months.

Up-rating of working tax credit etc (section 77)

The rate of the basic element of Working Tax Credit for the 2020/2021 tax year was set at £1,995, by the Tax Credits, Child Benefit and Guardian’s Allowance Up-rating Regulations 2020, due to come into force from 6 April 2020. The Act replaces the reference to £1,995 with a reference to the amount of £3,040 for that tax year. Oter changes to working tax credits are included.

Local authority meetings (section 78)

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

Extension of BID arrangements (sections 79-80)

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are business-led partnerships which are created voluntarily to deliver additional local services and upgrade the local environment for the benefit of business. There is a legal maximum of five years within which BIDs can operate. The Act temporarily extends the maximum duration of English BID arrangements. BID arrangements that are in place on the day of Royal Assent but are due to terminate on or before 31st December 2020 are to be extended until 31st March 2021.

Residential tenancies: protection form eviction (section 81)

Provisions to protect residential tenants from being evicted from a property during the coronavirus outbreak.

Business tenancies: protection from forfeiture (sections 82-83)

Commercial leases may be forfeited for non-payment of rent. The Act ensures that leases cannot be forfeited for non-payment of rent for a three-month period for all types of commercial tenants. Landlords will still be able to claim forfeiture after that the three-months period (either by peaceably re-entering the premises or by issuing a claim for forfeiture).

General Synod of the Church of England (section 84)

Provisions to extend the tenure of the current General Synod.

If you would like additional detail on any of the provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020, please don’t hesitate to contact your usual Osborne Clarke contact, or the author.