The Coronavirus Act 2020: what has changed?

28.03.20

The UK Government's emergency coronavirus legislation has now become law, as the Coronavirus Act 2020 ("the Act").

This comes after the Scottish Parliament passed a legislative consent motion, agreeing to Westminster enacting those provisions of the Act that concerned devolved matters. The Scottish Government is expected to introduce its own coronavirus legislation in the Scottish Parliament in the near future, which will deal with other issues not picked up in the Act.

We produced an overview of the Act's key provisions when the legislation was introduced to Parliament. It is wide-ranging and confers temporary but substantial powers on public authorities, across a variety of areas. The default position for most of the Act's provisions is that they will remain in force for two years, although there is a power allowing the UK Government (or Scottish Government, if the provision concerns an issue within devolved competence) to renew their application beyond this date.

Amendments

MPs and Peers sought changes and clarifications in respect of various matters as the Act made its way through Parliament. In response, the Government made various amendments to the legislation.

The key changes are:

  • Expiry/renewal of the Act

Every six months the Government must, "as far as practicable", arrange for MPs to vote to renew the full provisions of the Act. If MPs vote against keeping them in force, the Government must take steps to prevent their operation within 21 days. However, if MPs are unable to sit for any reason (for example if Parliament cannot meet because the virus is still causing a lockdown) then the provisions of the Act will continue in force beyond the six months. The Government resisted a proposal to allow MPs to renew some of the Act's provisions while electing not to renew others. Accordingly, when MPs are dealing with renewal, they will have to consider the Act in its entirety.

  •  Deceased person's wishes regarding burial or cremation

The Act gives local authorities substantial powers relating to the transportation, storage and disposal of human remains. The Government accepted an amendment requiring local authorities, in exercising these powers, to have regard to the desirability of disposing of the remains in accordance with the deceased person’s wishes, or otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the deceased person’s religion or beliefs. This does not mean that local authorities will be bound to comply with the person's wishes or act consistently with their religion or beliefs (and the point of the Act is to allow them to do what is necessary to keep the system from being overwhelmed), but they will have to consider them before deciding how to proceed.

  • The retention of DNA and fingerprints

In response to a concern that the national security apparatus may find itself stretched in coming months due to coronavirus, the Government amended the legislation to allow fingerprints and DNA profiles to be retained, in the interests of national security (for example in anti-terrorism cases), for up to six-months longer than would usually be permitted.

  • Working Tax Credits

Many of the financial measures announced by the Government do not feature in the legislation, as they can be implemented using existing powers. However, the Act was amended to increase the basic element of working tax credit to £3,040, to reflect similar changes to Universal Credit.

  • Tenancies

The Act was also amended to increase protections for business and residential tenancies in England and Wales. The Scottish Government has undertaken to make similar provision for Scotland in its own legislation.

The Act

The Act gives significant powers to central, devolved and local government, creating new offences for failures to comply. Some provisions have become immediately controversial and may be subject to legal challenge, particularly if the Act remains in force for its full two-year lifetime. It remains to be seen what approach the courts will take to this emergency legislation.

If you would like to discuss any of the matters covered by the Act, please contact Charles Livingstone or your usual Brodies contact.