The Coronavirus Bill was introduced in Parliament on Thursday 19 March 2020, as explained in our previous article.
The Bill represents the UK government's central legislative response to the coronavirus pandemic. There are other significant legislative measures that have been separately enacted, including the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Business Closure) (England) Regulations 2020, which came into force on Saturday 21 March 2020, and give the government the legal power to close businesses, such as cinemas, theatres and retail shops.
On Wednesday 25 March 2020, the legislation completed all legislative stages in Parliament and received Royal Assent. The Act is now in force: it empowers Ministers and the government with the emergency legal powers they require to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. The Act has wide implications for businesses, individuals and public authorities.
Since our original summary of the Bill as introduced, the following noteworthy provisions have been added:
(1) Six-monthly scrutiny in Parliament: Section 98 of the Act was introduced at the Committee Stage of the Bill. It creates a mechanism for Parliament to have an opportunity to revisit the Bill’s temporary provisions every six months. This was the government’s response to concerns shared by many Members of Parliament that the Bill did not provide for sufficient parliamentary oversight.
(2) Amendments to mental capacity legislation: Section 10 of the Act provides for temporary amendments to mental capacity legislation to allow certain functions relating to the detention and treatment of patients to be satisfied by fewer doctors’ opinions or certifications. Temporary amendments also allow for the extension or removal of certain time limits relating to the detention and transfer of patients.
(3) Fingerprints and DNA profiles: Section 24 provides an extension of time limits for retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles. The Act confers a regulation-making power on the Secretary of State so that they may vary the statutory retention deadlines for biometric material (fingerprints and DNA profiles) taken under the Terrorism Act 2000 (TACT), Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011 and Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (and similar legislation applicable in Scotland and Northern Ireland).
(4) Local authority provisions: Section 78 introduces regulation-making powers to enable relaxation of some requirements regarding meetings and proceedings of local authorities. The need for these measures arises because meetings may generate significant work that would put a strain on Local Authority resources when they could be stretched or used elsewhere. These provisions appeared as government amendments, introduced at Committee Stage in the Commons on 23 March 2020.
(5) Consideration of burial practices: Part IV of Schedule 28 requires local authorities, in carrying out functions concerning disposal of bodies under the Act, to have regard to the desirability of disposing of a dead person’s body or other remains in accordance with the dead person’s wishes (if known) or otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the dead person’s religion or beliefs.
(6) Protection of residential tenants from eviction: Section 81 and Schedule 29 introduce protections from eviction for residential tenants. Under the current legislative framework for both the private and social rented sectors, landlords are able to lawfully evict a tenant and gain possession of the property under a range of circumstances. To do so, they must usually serve on the tenant a valid notice of intention that they wish to possess the property and may be required to evidence their reason for seeking possession in court. These reasons can include when the tenant has accumulated rent arrears.
Many of the powers available under the Act are subject to further provision by way of regulations. For example, the provisions on Emergency Volunteering Leave will, in short order, be supplemented by regulations setting out the detail of this scheme. We'll keep you updated as these regulations are made.
We’re supporting businesses and public sector bodies affected by the new emergency measures under the Coronavirus Act 2020. Please get in touch with Paul Stone or Paul Hardy, or your usual DLA Piper contact, for help and advice.