The Coronavirus Bill is now before the UK Parliament and is expected to become law shortly. It covers various issues relating to Scotland including in certain devolved areas, in anticipation of the Scottish Parliament consenting to Westminster legislating in the interests of time and efficiency. However, separate legislation may still be introduced in the Scottish Parliament to deal with other issues not covered by the Coronavirus Bill ("the Bill").
The Bill would make substantial temporary changes to the law, across five broad categories:
1. Essential staff;
2. The emergency volunteer scheme;
3. Reducing burden on essential resources;
4. Public Health Powers; and
5. Support for affected persons
The Bill temporarily loosens the regulatory requirements that apply to various medical professionals, including nurses, paramedics and biomedical scientists, and in Scotland relaxes the registration requirements that apply to GPs. These changes are intended to get medical staff into frontline service roles faster than they would be otherwise. The Bill also lifts the rules on suspension or abatement of pensions that usually apply to persons returning to work in the NHS, removing a significant disincentive on retired professionals becoming active again.
The Bill also empowers the Scottish Ministers to permit the temporary registration of social workers, including retired social workers and final year Social Work students, in order to expand the available pool of social workers.
Emergency volunteer scheme
The Bill creates an entirely new scheme for emergency volunteers, who would be entitled to take unpaid leave from their employment (subject to certain exceptions) in order to fill capacity gaps in key roles, with some compensation for loss of earnings and expenses. The Scottish Ministers and local authorities will be able to certify volunteers.
Reducing other burdens on essential resources
Parts of the Bill are aimed at reducing the other demands placed on essential resources, such as the NHS and central and local government, including in ways that may be controversial and indeed may be subject to legal challenge. These measures include:
- amending Scottish mental health legislation, including to reduce the required involvement of social workers and medical staff and increasing certain periods of detention;
- enabling the Scottish Ministers to indemnify the NHS against liabilities connected with coronavirus or with business-as-usual activities carried out (or perhaps not carried out) during the emergency period;
- removing Scottish local authorities' usual obligation to assess the needs of a person before providing social care, and loosening carers' duties in relation to care plans;
- relaxing the rules on registration of deaths, including allowing the Scottish Ministers to suspend the system of death certificate reviews and vary the duties of cremation authorities, funeral directors and local authorities in relation to tracing and contacting the relatives of deceased persons;
- empowering the Scottish Ministers to relax organisations' disclosure obligations and 'fast-track' certain disclosure applications;
- allowing the Scottish Ministers to widen the pool of healthcare professionals entitled to give vaccinations and immunisations; and
- postponing certain elections and referendums, including recall petitions for MPs, Scottish Parliament constituency by-elections and council by-elections.
Public Health powers
These powers are concerned with minimising transmission, dealing with possibly infected persons and ensuring the continuation of essential infrastructure.
The UK and Scottish Governments will be able to require organisations to provide information in relation to the food supply chain, to ensure they have a clear picture of the food supply situation at any given time.
The Scottish Ministers will be able to make orders in relation to educational establishments, including requiring them to continue to operate or perform additional functions, as well as closing or restricting access to them. Orders could apply to a particular establishment, all establishments or all establishments of a particular type, and can cover schools, nurseries, colleges, universities and even parts of childminders' homes that are used for childcare. Orders can also be made to close or restrict access to school boarding accommodation, or to confine boarding pupils to their accommodation. Any failure by an education authority to comply with its obligations (including in respect of free school lunches or children with additional support needs) is to be disregarded if it is the result of an order.
The Scottish Ministers will be able to impose restrictions or requirements on persons, things or premises in Scotland in response to a threat to public health (subject to certain limitations). This could include requiring the examination, detention or quarantining of a person (though they could not be compelled to undergo medical treatment or be vaccinated), or requiring the disinfecting of property. It could also include restricting or prohibiting gatherings and events, restrictions on the handling of human remains, and the creation of new criminal offences. Public health, police and immigration officers could be empowered to require a person to undergo screening and assessment, and to require a person to remain in isolation.
The UK Government will be able to direct the suspension of airport, seaport, or international rail terminal operations in the event that insufficient Border Force officers are available.
Local and national authorities will be empowered to require information about capacity for dealing with human remains. If local authorities are designated as having insufficient capacity then directions could be given to deal with that issue, including by requiring a crematorium to operate longer opening hours or arranging for the transport of remains to another area. Directions could also mandate the method of disposal of human remains.
Support for affected persons
There is limited provision in the Bill for support for affected persons, which can largely be covered using existing powers. However, the Bill does allow the Government to fund employer statutory sick pay liabilities incurred as a result of coronavirus, disapply the waiting period for an employee who cannot work due to coronavirus, and possibly extend Statutory Sick Pay to those who are self-isolating.