1. Introduction

The Coronavirus Act (The Act) was passed as emergency legislation, because of the highly infectious coronavirus pandemic, called COVID-19. It has spread rapidly around the world with huge and unprecedented consequences for people’s health, social care, and economic security. It is having major implications for health and care services in the UK.

The Act came into force on 25 March 2020. It will expire after two years, with the exception of some clauses not related to the care and support of adults. It will be debated in the House of Commons every six months.

The Act aims to:

  • increase the available health and social care workforce;
  • ease the burden on frontline staff;
  • contain and slowing the virus;
  • manage the deceased with respect and dignity;
  • support people.

The Act is part of a concerted effort across the whole of the UK to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. It aims to enable the right people from public bodies to take appropriate actions at the right times to manage the effects of the outbreak.

This chapter is a summary of the key points of the legislation that affects services provided to adults with care and support needs. For further information please click on Coronavirus Act 2020 to read the legislation and the guidance.

2. Emergency Registration of Nurses and other Health and Care Professionals

The Act introduces new registration powers for the Registrars of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). This is to help to deal with the increase in those needing medical care and any shortage of registered staff to help. The NMC and HCPC will be able to temporarily register fit, proper and suitably experienced persons, as regulated healthcare professionals for this national emergency.

The NMC registration will cover nurses, midwives, and nursing associates, and the HCPC registration will cover paramedics, biomedical scientists, clinical scientists, operating department practitioners and any other of the relevant professions it regulates.

There is already existing legislation for the General Medical Council to register doctors in the UK, and for the General Pharmaceutical Council to register pharmacists in Great Britain, in an emergency.

3. Temporary Registration of Social Workers

The Act introduces emergency registration powers for the Registrar of Social Work England (SWE). SWE will be able to temporarily register fit, proper and suitably experienced persons as social workers for this national emergency.

The additional emergency registrants will help to deal with any shortage of social workers in the children’s and adult social care sectors as a result of increased staff absenteeism.

4. Emergency Volunteering Leave

The Act introduces a new form of unpaid statutory leave, and powers to establish a compensation scheme to compensate volunteers for:

  • some loss of earnings; and
  • expenses incurred.

These measures will enable relevant appropriate authorities (local authorities and relevant health and social care bodies) to maximise the pool of volunteers that they can draw on to fill capacity gaps by addressing two primary concerns that potential volunteers may have:

  • the risk to employment and employment rights; and
  • loss of income.

These measures will maximise the number of volunteers that are able to fill gaps in capacity, therefore helping to safeguard essential services that could be at risk due to demand on services as a result of pandemic pressures.

5. Mental Health and Mental Capacity

The Act introduces temporary amendments to the Mental Health Act 1983 and associated secondary legislation.

The amendments mean that fewer doctors will be required to provide opinion or certification for the detention and treatment of patients. Temporary amendments also allow for the extension or removal of certain time limits for the detention and transfer of patients.

Further provisions will temporarily change current provisions in relation to defendants and prisoners with a mental health condition. It will reduce the number of doctors’ opinions required and alter time limits for detention and movement between court, prison, and hospital. This will enable them to be admitted to hospital for treatment where there might otherwise be delays owing to a shortage of qualified staff in a pandemic.

6. NHS and Local Authority Care and Support

See also Responding to COVID-19: The Ethical Framework for Adult Social Care (Department of Health and Social Care)

Previously, patients with social care needs go through a number of stages before they are discharged from hospital. For some patients, one of these stages is an NHS Continuing Healthcare (NHS CHC) Assessment; a process that can take some weeks.  The Act will allow the procedure for discharge from an acute hospital setting for those with a social care need to be simplified.

There are also duties on a local authority in Part 1 of the Care Act 2014 to assess needs for care and support, and to meet those needs. The Coronavirus Act replaces these duties with a power to meet needs for care and support, underpinned by a duty to meet those needs where not to do so would be a breach of an individual’s human rights, and a power to meet needs in other cases.

The Act downgrades Care Act duties to powers. The social care provisions are made in Schedule 12 under section 15 of the Act. It gives local authorities the power to disapply (not have to apply) and / or modify their Care Act duties.

Key areas where Care Act duties no longer apply:

The local authority’s powers depend on principles of expectations and prioritisation (see Care Act Easements Guidance: Summary chapter). Social care teams are expected to do as much as they can to meet needs but may not need to meet all assessed care needs in full.

Social workers should meet the most urgent and serious needs to keep adults safe. There is a minimum human rights obligation (see Equality, Diversity and Human Rights in a Safeguarding Context chapter).

These duties remain:

The Coronavirus Act also allows that, if a local authority has not charged an individual for their care during the COVID-19 pandemic, they can do so afterwards; after the conclusion of this period and subject to financial assessment.

Therefore there is no requirement to carry out financial assessments, however, there can also be no charge made without having carried out an assessment. Any existing placement can continue to charge under the previous assessment. Any new package will require an assessment to be carried out at a later stage and charges will be backdated.

This is intended to reduce the operational burden on local authorities so they can prioritise the services they offer in order to make sure the most urgent and serious care needs are met.

To support local authorities in operating under these powers, including making decisions about priorities in a consistent, and ethical manner, the Government has published guidance which local authorities are directed to comply with: Care Act Easements: Guidance for Local Authorities (Department of Health and Social Care).

7. Powers Relating to Potentially Infectious Persons

The Act provides for the detention, isolation, and screening of, and other appropriate restrictions in relation to people who have or may have coronavirus, or who have arrived in England from an area in which the virus is prevalent.

It is assumed that most people will comply with relevant public health advice. The policy aim of these provisions is to ensure that proportionate measures can be enforced if, and when, necessary. Public health officers, constables and (in some circumstances) immigration officers will be provided with the means to enforce sensible public health restrictions, including returning people to places that they have been required to stay.

Where necessary and proportionate, police constables and immigration officers will be able to direct individuals to attend, remove them to, or keep them at suitable locations for screening and assessment.  These measures look to fill existing gaps in powers to ensure the screening and isolation of people who may be infected or contaminated with the virus and to ensure that constables can enforce health protection measures where necessary.

8. Courts and Tribunals: Use of Video and Audio Technology

This will apply to the Court of Protection and family courts, for example.

The efficiency and timeliness of court and tribunal hearings will suffer during a COVID-19 outbreak. Restrictions on travel will make it difficult for people to attend court, without taking action a significant number of hearings and trials are likely to be adjourned.

The Act amends existing legislation so that 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 only by video / audio hearing where there is no physical courtroom and all participants take part in the hearing using telephone or video conferencing facilities.