The Coronavirus Act 2020: Changes to Public Health System, Indemnification and NHS Volunteers

by Faareen Ali


As the Coronavirus baton strikes us harder than envisaged, the UK government has enacted measures in ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’ (‘Act’) to protect us from catastrophic ramifications. Fast tracked through Parliament, it received its’ Royal Assent on 24 March 2020, and allowed the UK government to implement social and economic relief for individuals and businesses. On the same day, the government passed the Contingencies Funds Act 2020 allowing it to temporarily take up to 48% more from the Contingencies Fund (emergency pot), compared to the previous legislation, to respond effectively to the Coronavirus outbreak. 

There have been reports of hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost since the lock down, with the numbers projected to rise up to a few million before the end of the pandemic. Many businesses will cease to operate, or be at the brink of bankruptcy if they are not sustained properly. With no signs of an end to the Pandemic, pressure on the public health and death management system unfortunately increased, and regulation in all these areas became necessary due to the growing number of deaths, patients being hospitalised, and the expectation of devastating economic collapse. The UK government  announced the relaxation of  sanctions recently, however the Act remains in effect, and will continue to exist for a period of two years. We sat down with the Act to understand what changes had been brought by it, and how it affected, and continues to affect us, on on a daily basis.

Public Healthcare System

The Bill makes provisions for emergency registration of nurses and other healthcare professionals within the UK, which changes the entrenched procedure in place previously. The new measures has seen midwives, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, chemists, druggists, paramedics and other medical practitioners, inclusive of final year students, registered to attend to the additional demand. However, those who are registered at the discretion of the registrant under this approach will only be required to work if they wish to. 

The General Medical Council already had the power to re-register individuals retired from the healthcare service. From an initial assessment, there were up to 15,500 retired doctors and 60,000 retired nurses in total, of which, over 500 doctors and 4,000 nurses had bravely re-registered within hours of ‘Your NHS needs you appeal’.

The Nurse and Midwife Council (NMC) engaged their powers during this Pandemic to increase and shift tasks allocated to nurses and midwives, some which they would not usually undertake. For the community, this meant that many non-essential treatments such as scans and surgeries were delayed or cancelled, and healthcare professionals were freed to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak. Due to the reduction in the transmission rate of Coronavirus recently, it is reported that hospitals will  reconvene normal service, and many of you can expect to be contacted about impending treatments.

There are measures within the Bill for emergency registration of social workers by Registrar of Social Work England (SWE) and Social Care Wales (SCW) within the child and adult social care services due to the level of absences anticipated, and to ensure continuity of care. The  governments motive’s have been to prevent a surge in a backlog of cases post pandemic, as well as reducing harm to the vulnerable, and to keep on coiling the wheels of care.

Indemnification

This Act allows an appropriate authority such as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and Welsh Ministers for Wales to indemnify the Health Service for ‘qualified wrongdoing’ during their service. The effect of this act is that indemnity cover will be provided to health care workers by the government, if a wrongful act had occurred during the ‘relevant service’.

Indemnification is available for qualified wrongdoing mentioned in the bill such as Tort, which is a wrongful act causing death, personal injury or loss to a person or property, if it is committed in the course of providing a relevant service. It should be noted that many medical professionals are already covered under privately sought indemnity insurance, and the Act says that it does not intend to doubly protect those individuals.

According to the Coronavirus Bill, relevant service has been defined as;

  • Caring for or treating a person who has, or is suspected of having, coronavirus disease, whether or not in respect of that disease;
  • Caring or treating someone other than someone suspected of having coronavirus, but is suspected of being infected;
  • Or during the diagnosis or determination of whether someone has been infected;
  • If diagnosis, care and treatment is provided to someone not by the person who usually would, and the reason is related to Coronavirus, or because the usual person was caring for, or treating someone with Coronavirus disease, suspected or actual. 

This basically means that if a medical professional is responsible for a wrongdoing whilst diagnosing or caring for a Coronavirus patient, suspected or actual, or whilst treating a Coronavirus patient in place of someone else, he or she will qualify for indemnification from the government.

The general complaints process for the NHS is found at https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/about-the-nhs/how-to-complain-to-the-nhs/- if not resolved to your satisfaction, it can be escalated to Ombudsman, and even litigated in court as last resort. As it stands, there have been no changes made to the complaints process amid this Act.

NHS Volunteers

A total of 750,000 had volunteered as Emergency NHS Volunteers, which exceeded the government’s target of 250,000.  In order to register as a volunteer, you are required to complete an online form, accessible at https://ww.goodsamapp.org/NHSThe appropriate authority such as your local council or Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will then issue a certificate which will specify your volunteering period.

The certificate will assign a time period of either two, three or four consecutive weeks at a time, with an employee able to take time off once during each period mentioned. The volunteering programme for Coronavirus has been given a time limit of 16 weeks from 24 March 2020 unless extended. There are certain groups of people who are exempt from applying, such as; employees to a business with less than 10 staff and those employed by the Crown, House of Lords or Commons staff and Police. 

What is an Emergency Volunteer Leave?

Emergency Volunteer Leave is a temporary form of statutory unpaid leave, which affords volunteers a legal right to time off  work for their volunteering activities, and prohibits employers from responding adversely or criticising them for it. The Bill also maintains the terms of employment to afford all employees protection. In order to qualify, the employee must no later than 3 working days before the first day of the period mentioned on the certificate, notify their employer in writing of their intention to take time off work for volunteering purposes, for the period mentioned on their certificate, and must provide their employer a copy of the certificate. 

Compensation Scheme

The Bill invites the Secretary of State to make arrangements for a compensation scheme so volunteers are reimbursed for loss of earnings or expenses incurred as a direct consequence of their volunteering. In the coming weeks or months, the Secretary of State will release information about the compensation scheme which will address;  

  • The conditions that people must satisfy to qualify
  • Different provisions for different cases
  • Application Process
  • Assessment criteria for allowance
  • Payment method
  • Limits on remuneration that a person is entitled to claim.

These are some of the areas that the Coronavirus Act temporarily regulates but to learn about the impact on the management of the deceased, protections granted to residential and commercial tenants, as well as the Mental Health Act 1983, please click here.

This article is intended for guidance only and must not be relied upon for specific advice.

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