What is the Coronavirus Bill and what does it mean for employers?

Analysis from Deminos’ litigator and employment law expert Ed McFarlane.

 

The UK government has published information on the ‘Coronavirus Bill’, emergency legislation designed to complement the Government’s action plan. The Bill is planned to become law by the end of March and will take effect from then, except that provisions relating to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) are set to be backdated to Friday 13th March 2020, so employees off sick now may be entitled to ‘back pay’ of SSP.

 

The measures will be temporary and time-limited, with a maximum duration of 2 years, and may be introduced in stages as needed. Here we look at the implications for employment of key aspects, mostly aimed at the care, health and education sectors, but which may impact on all workforces.

 

Absence from work & SSP

  1. The government is planning to make SSP available with retrospective effect from Friday 13th March 2020 for people who are unwell or who are instructed to self-isolate, by scrapping the 3 waiting days. SSP is currently £94.25p per week. So keep records of sickness and be ready to pay back pay when the law comes into effect.

  1. Employers with fewer than 250 employees may reclaim SSP paid in relation to the coronavirus for the period of the outbreak. This might be by offsetting it against employer’s NI contributions.

 

Increasing the numbers of health and social care workers

  1. Increasing the available health and social care workforce. This measure is designed to allow people to be registered as healthcare professionals on an emergency basis, e.g. nurses, midwifes and paramedics and social workers and might include the recently retired and students near the end of training.

  1. Introducing for employees and workers ‘Emergency Volunteer Leave’ to be taken in blocks of 2, 3 or 4 weeks. This sounds like it might be modelled on ‘Parental Leave’. It will be unpaid, but employees and workers who take it will be entitled to an unspecified flat rate of compensation to cover loss of earnings, and expenses incurred by volunteers. The idea is that people will be able to leave work, the employers won’t have to pay them and the volunteers shouldn’t be too far out of pocket. There are no specifics, but we would expect that it would include a right to return to the former job for employees and protection from ‘detriment’ (e.g. non-renewal of contracts) for workers. The purpose of volunteering could be delivery of health and social care, including looking after the vulnerable, those with complex long-term conditions, including those with mental health conditions.

  1. Indemnities for clinical negligence liabilities arising from carrying out NHS activities in connection with the virus outbreak, including ‘healthcare service activity’. This may mean that those carrying out functions for the NHS but who not part of it, e.g. care homes providing additional resources for hospitals could have the benefit of indemnity cover rather than having to obtain additional insurance.

  1. Allowing retired NHS staff engaged to combat the outbreak to work more than 16 hours a week without impacting on their pensions.

  2. Easing the burden on frontline staff – as well as relaxing the rules on mental health treatment by reducing the number of doctors needed for assessments and the requirements for continuing healthcare assessments, there will be changes to Care legislation across the UK to enable local authorities to prioritise services to ensure that the most urgent needs are met, which may mean not meeting other, less urgent needs. Essentially, it seems to be accepting that there may be circumstances where local authorities can’t be expected to do all that they usually do.

  1. Require educational institutions or childcare providers to stay open and to allow for relaxation of teacher/pupil ratios and changing school meals standards, to minimise disruption to everyday life and allow pragmatic responses to changing situations. However, there is also a power to close them, as needs must.

  1. Requiring ports and airports to temporarily close and suspend operations if Border Force staff numbers fall (they may be enforcing quarantine) so funnelling trade and people through certain ports (this is seen as an extreme measure, so seems unlikely).

  1. Use of audio and video link in court proceedings, particularly where someone is quarantined and appeals against restrictions on their movements, i.e. people may be quarantined and could appeal by video link.

 

Reducing social contacts to slow the virus

  1. The government may prevent gatherings of people (that haven’t already been cancelled) including conferences and closing schools, universities and colleges and childcare providers (presumably this will be circumstance-specific). So this could mean prohibiting events in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft etc. and to close premises. This clearly could cover almost any meeting or workplace.

  1. Temporary closure of educational and childcare providers is specifically listed.

  1. These measures would be enforced by the police and Immigration Officers (hence the potential ports and airports measures).

 

Funeral arrangements

  1. The formalities around the registration of deaths may be relaxed to make the process more flexible.

  1. In extreme circumstances, local authorities may take over part of the ‘death management process’ in their areas, e.g. requiring longer operating times and requiring funeral directors or others not involved in the funeral sector to provide necessary support, e.g. transport and delivery companies.

 

In other news, the government has indicated that the proposed extension of IR35 to medium and large private sector businesses is to be postponed to 6th April 2021.

 

For more employer information about the coronavirus outbreak, please visit www.deminos.co.uk/coronavirus.

 

Author David Ralph

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