The Coronavirus Act will give the government the power to take urgent action to tackle the issues caused by the virus.

Below we have highlighted the key provisions for your healthcare organisation. The operation of some of the provisions will be controlled by further regulations, with the Government having the power to commence, suspend and revive the powers set out in this legislation.

This summary will help keep you and your teams up to date with the ongoing changes this legislation brings and how it may impact your organisation.

Key provisions for healthcare organisations are:

Use of resources

  • The ability to use an emergency register for suitable people to practise as regulated healthcare professionals such as nurses, midwives and paramedics (to include recently retired professionals and experienced students). Those individuals can then be deployed locally into suitable roles, taking account of their skills and experience. Similar provisions will be introduced for social workers.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: organisations should have a streamlined process in place for checking the registration of such individuals and identifying their skills/experience so that they can be deployed effectively.
  • Enabling Emergency Volunteer Leave of 2, 3 or 4 weeks for those who volunteer to assist appropriate authorities with their work, with compensation for expenses/loss of earnings. This provision will only come into force when further Regulations are made.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: organisations should have a similar streamlined process in place for establishing how best any such volunteers can be deployed.
  • Ensuring appropriate clinical negligence indemnity arrangements for those carrying out NHS activities associated with the coronavirus outbreak: those working on the coronavirus response will ordinarily be covered by the NHS indemnity, unless they have other insurance arrangements.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: providers may wish to communicate this to staff to reassure them.
  • Suspending the rule that NHS staff who have retired and returned can only work up to 16 hours per week.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: organisations should amend their policies/publish this exception as soon as this provision comes into effect.
  • Amending the Mental Health Act 1983, in terms of the powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder. Subject to further regulations being passed, the Act allows for detention to be authorised using one doctor’s opinion (rather than two), where obtaining the opinion of two practitioners is impractical or would involve undesirable delay.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: doctors and other staff must ensure that they are up-to-date on the circumstances in which these powers can be used, bearing in mind that there may be no “safety net” of a second opinion.
  • If staff numbers are seriously adversely affected, extending or removing some time limits in mental health legislation, including doctors’ and nurses’ holding powers under sections 5(2) and 5(4), and extension of the ‘place of safety’ time periods in sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Again, these provisions will only come into effect when further regulations are made.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: staff should familiarise themselves with the powers and the time-limits that may apply. Contingency arrangements for places of safety may also need to be reviewed.
  • Allowing NHS providers to delay undertaking continuing healthcare and nursing assessments for a specified time on patients discharged from hospital.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: consider what alternative arrangements may need to be put in place with social care providers.
  • Amending the Care Act 2014 to ensure that local authorities can focus on social care activities which will support the pandemic efforts. This provision will only come into force when further Regulations are made.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: healthcare providers and local authorities should use existing relationships to consider how best they can work together on the pandemic at a local level.

Inquests, Coroner Work and other legal proceedings

  • Coroners need only to be notified where there is no medical practitioner who can sign the death certificate within a reasonable period of time.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: pending further guidance being produced, organisations may wish to familiarise clinicians with the changed requirements.
  • Various provisions around burial, cremation and registering of deaths designed to address potential reduced capacity to carry out such functions, including powers of local authorities to obtain information.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: the statutory powers and duties to manage bodies of the deceased sit with the local authority in the first instance.
  • Removing the requirement that any inquest into a COVID-19 death must be held with a jury (but the provision still applies to other notifiable disease deaths), and the Courts/Tribunals will expand the use of video/telephone hearings.

    Recommended step to take at this stage: the Courts/Tribunals have issued guidance based on their jurisdictions, including the circumstances in which hearings may or should be adjourned: if it is difficult for staff to attend hearings, even via video/audio arrangements, the Court/Tribunal should be notified (as far as possible) in good time.

Sickness Absence

  • Ensuring that employees and workers can receive statutory sick pay from the first day of absence (although NHS employers have more generous occupational sick pay scheme in place in any event).

Other provisions

There are additional provisions in the Act including around:

    • school closures (or enforced opening)
    • port and airport closures
    • prohibiting events/gatherings
    • detention of individuals for public health reasons
    • postponing elections
    • securing food supplies

    We hope that this summary is helpful in terms of highlighting the parts of the Act that are likely to have the most significant impact on our healthcare clients.

    If you have any queries around what's discussed in this article, and the impact on your organisation, please speak to Andrew Latham or Andrew Rowland to find out more about how Capsticks can help.