On Thursday, Boris Johnson published new emergency legislation handing his Government sweeping powers over vast areas of British life not seen since the end of the Second World War.

The measures set out in the 329-page Coronavirus Bill give police new powers to shut down events and order people to go home to stop the spread of the disease. The Government wants the powers to remain in place until September 2022 at the latest.

Ministers are keen to push the legislation through Parliament early next week, but Tory MPs, including the former Home Secretary David Davis, want more time to consider the changes.

Here, we look at some of the key areas of the legislation:

Police powers

Police, public health and immigration officers will be given special powers to detain people refusing to follow health guidance and limit their movements to stop the spread of coronavirus.

While ministers “assume that the vast majority of people will comply with relevant public health advice”, the Government says, the new powers will be issued against those who do not.

Public health officers, constables and immigration officers will get powers to “enforce sensible public health restrictions, including returning people to places that they have been required to stay”. The authorities will also “be able to direct individuals to attend, remove them to or keep them at suitable locations for screening and assessment”.

Legal powers already exist for police to arrest anyone failing to comply, with the courts having the power to impose fines of £1,000.

Death

Crematoriums will be ordered to dispose of dead bodies in communities in areas where they risk “overwhelming” the system.

The powers allow “a designated local authority … to give a direction requiring a person to do anything calculated to facilitate the transportation, storage or disposal of dead bodies or other human remains”. Any powers will be used to “ensure that deceased bodies can be stored, transported or disposed of with care and respect”, the legislation says.

Only one doctor – rather than two medics, as under current law – will be able to authorise a cremation, although a “medical referee” at a crematorium, who could be a retired doctor, will still have to sign off the paperwork.

The requirement for a second doctor to authorise cremations was brought in after Harold Shipman murdered an estimated 250 patients by injecting them with lethal doses of diamorphine. Evidence of his crimes was destroyed when victims were cremated after he had signed the necessary forms.

Health

The word of a single doctor will be enough to confine someone to a mental hospital. Currently, the opinions of two doctors and a mental health expert are required before someone is committed to an institution under the Mental Health Act 1983.

However, the Government says the Bill will “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,” the Bill says.

The new powers will allow temporary social workers to be created to care for vulnerable people as long as they are considered to be “fit, proper and suitably experienced to be registered”.

Shutdown powers

Ministers will be able to “prohibit or restrict events and gatherings, and to close premises, if the public health situation deems it necessary” and such steps can control the transmission of coronavirus.

Any shop, bar, restaurant or building can be shut to help enforce a partial shutdown of London or other cities and towns to control the spread of coronavirus.

The new legislation will “ensure that powers to prevent events or gatherings can be deployed as quickly as possible in the event this is justified by the evidence”, the Government says.

Food

Food producers will be compelled to tell the Government when supplies are running low. 

The Government says it anticipates “ongoing collaboration on a voluntary basis between Government and industry”. But it needs a new “power to act” if food companies “were to refuse to comply with voluntary requests for information in order to ensure Government has the necessary information to build a clear understanding of the situation, make informed judgments and respond effectively”.

Schools

Officials will get new powers to close schools and childcare providers and make “specific types of directions” over the way they are run.

The Government will also be able to increase maximum class sizes from the current level of 30 pupils to help schools having to deal with a teacher shortage caused by coronavirus.

The wording of the Bill is deliberately open-ended in order to allow ministers wide-ranging powers to suspend current laws relating to education as and when the need arises.

Sick pay, pensions and national insurance

Employers will have their sick pay costs underwritten by the taxpayer if they are overwhelmed by illness among staff.

Currently, statutory sick pay is paid by an employer to an employee who is absent from work due to sickness at a flat weekly rate for up to 28 weeks.

However, ministers are concerned that the system does not provide the flexibility required for the response to managing and mitigating the effects of a coronavirus pandemic. “In the event of a severe Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, the number of people off work would increase significantly,” the Government warns.

Employers will be able to ask HM Revenue and Customs to cover the costs of additional sick pay payments when the crisis is expected to worsen. Sick pay will also be paid immediately rather than after three days so people are not tempted to come to work when they have been struck down by the virus.

Pension rules which mean senior medics lose out financially if they return to work  to help deal with the crisis will be lifted. Ministers will also be able to make faster changes to National Insurance Contributions.

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