The UK’s ports and airports could be closed and police given powers to detain people suspected of having coronavirus under emergency legislation.
In new laws to be introduced to the House of Commons this week, the government is seeking widespread powers to tackle the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 – the prevalent strain of coronavirus.
The legislation – which follows significant economic measures introduced by Chancellor RIshi Sunak – will be time-limited for two years and will cover areas such as the NHS, social care, schools, police, Border Force, local councils, funerals and courts.
As well as enhancing powers for government, the legislation – named the Coronavirus Bill – will also scrap existing regulations in some areas should public services suffer mass staff shortages.
Not all the measures will come into force immediately, while they can be “switched off” if they are no longer necessary.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new powers “will only be used when it is absolutely necessary and must be timed to maximise their effectiveness”.
“Crucially they give the government the powers it needs to protect lives,” he added.
In order to ensure the UK’s border security, Home Secretary Priti Patel will be given the power to request ports and airports temporarily close and suspend operations if there is a shortage of Border Force staff.
Police and immigration officers will also be given the power to detain a person and quarantine them if they are, or might be, infectious.
In other measures, the legislation will allow:
- Recently-retired doctors or medical students to be registered as regulated healthcare professionals, in order to boost the number of NHS staff;
- Social workers who have recently left the profession to be temporarily added to registers;
- Workers to be able to take “emergency volunteer leave” for up to four weeks, with a compensation fund to be established to cover their loss of earnings and expenses;
- Just one doctor’s opinion, rather than the current two, to be used to detain and treat patients for a mental health disorder;
- Schools and children’s nurseries to be forced to close – or forced to stay open, as well as the relaxation of some requirements such as maximum class sizes;
- The greater use of video and audio link in courts;
- The temporary appointment of Judicial Commissioners, who authorise warrants under anti-terror laws, should there be a shortage;
- The government to have the power to restrict or ban any events or gatherings;
- The removal of some bureaucracy surrounding funerals and cremations, including expanding the list of people who can register a death to include funeral directors acting on behalf of the family;
- Local councils to directly take over the management of deaths, if it becomes likely the number of people who might die from coronavirus is likely to significantly exceed the capacity locally to manage the deceased;
- The food industry to be forced to provide information about food supplies.
The bill will also allow the government to bring in its planned action to temporarily suspend the rule that means statutory sick pay is not paid for the first three days of work missed, in a measure that will be backdated to 13 March.
It will also confirm the postponement of local and mayoral elections to 2021.
In separate government action, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick has announced the relaxation of planning rules to allow all pubs, restaurants and cafes to be able to offer takeaway and delivery services if they wish.
In other developments:
- The Chinese city of Wuhan – the original epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak – has reported just one new case of the virus for the second day in a row, as China reported only 13 new cases on Wednesday
- Canada and the US are considering a mutual ban on non-essential travel between the two countries, according to a Canadian government official
- Tunisia has announced a nationwide curfew, with citizens in lockdown from 6pm to 6am
- At least 17 elderly people from a Madrid nursing home have died in the last five days, the Spanish city’s regional authorities have said
- The youngest UK victim has been named as 45-year-old Craig Ruston, a father-of-two with motor neurone disease (MND)
- UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has unveiled plans to offer £330bn in government-backed loans to businesses struggling in the face of the coronavirus pandemic
- Nevada’s governor has ordered the closure of the casinos in Las Vegas for a month, along with other non-essential businesses in the state