What’s in the Coronavirus Bill?

This week the government intends to push its Coronavirus Bill through Parliament. In its “summary of impacts” document, the government states that the bill is “temporary, emergency legislation” which intends to “provide powers needed to respond to the current coronavirus epidemic.”

MPs will be expected to grapple with the 300-page bill over the course of a few days. It will, for as long as it is in operation, fundamentally change our way of life. The legislation represents the biggest diminution of civil liberties since World War II.

The contents of the Coronavirus Bill

The bill amends Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislation in respect of mental health, inquests, criminal law and employment law. The government believes its plans take “due account of the UK’s devolution settlement in a way that enables swift action to be taken when and where it is needed.”

It’s impossible to cover every provision within one article but here are the proposals that stand out:

1.Mental Health

The Coronavirus Bill relaxes the rules around detaining people under the Mental Health (NI) Order 1986. The government believes the pandemic will put a strain on mental health services and affect the ability of people to get treatment. Mental health advocates worry that the provisions will leave people at the mercy of doctors, social workers and leave them in detention for long periods of time.

Schedule nine of the bill states that a “relevant social worker” in Northern Ireland can make an application for a compulsory admission to hospital. This is a change from current rules were an “approved social worker” must do this.

Under the current rules, a patient must be assessed “immediately after” he is admitted to hospital for an assessment. The bill amends this to “as soon as practicable and not later than 12 hours after.”

The Coronavirus Bill gives authorities more time to furnish reports that lead to detention for patients. It provides for doctors other than the “responsible medical practitioner” to examine patients.

For accused persons remanded into the care of the Department of Health for admission to hospital, the 1986 Order states that they, “shall not be remanded or further remanded under this Article for more than 28 days at a time or for more than 12 weeks in all.”  The Coronavirus Bill, in contrast, amends the provisions in 1986 Order and states that it “has effect as if the words ‘or for more than 12 weeks in all’ were omitted.”

Significantly, the bill gives scope for an accused person to be remanded to hospital based on the evidence of one doctor where the “evidence of at least two registered medical practitioners…is impractical or would involve undesirable delay.” This amends the current provisions under the Mental Capacity Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.

  1. Protection of public health measures

The Coronavirus Bill gives powers to the Department of Health to impose or enable, “the imposition of restrictions or requirements on or in relation to persons, things or premises” in the event of “a threat to public health.” This includes, under s25C(3)(c), “a special restriction or requirement.”

Under the legislation, a special restriction or requirement includes, among others:

-that a person be subject to medical examination

-that a person be kept in isolation or quarantine

-that a person be subject to restrictions on where that person or goes or with whom that person has contact

-in the case of a dead body, that it be cremated or buried

The Department may only impose a restriction if, “the restriction or requirement is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by imposing it.”

  1. Orders that may be made by a Magistrates’ Court

The Coronavirus Bill states that a Magistrates’ Court may make an Order if it is satisfied that a person may be infected or contaminated, the infection presents a risk to public health, there is a risk that a person may infect others and it is necessary to make an Order to remove or reduce the risk.

The court can impose several restrictions that include, among others:

-that the person be removed to a hospital

-that the person submits to a medical examination

-that the person abstains from working or trading

The Magistrates’ Court can also apply orders to a “thing” if the court is satisfied that it is infected or contaminated. The court can also make Orders in respect of premises. Any Order can be revoked or varied by an affected person, the Department or the owner of a thing or premises.

There are further, widespread powers for the police. S, 25R gives an authorised officer the power “to enter any premises at all reasonable hours” for the purpose of, ascertaining whether there has been a breach of a court Order. The officer must have “reasonable grounds” for entry to the premises.

The legislation is clear that the power of entry, “does not authorise entry to any part of premises which is used as a private dwelling” but makes clear that this does not affect the power of a court to make an Order to authorise entry into a private dwelling.

  1. Powers relating to potentially infected persons

If the Department of Health is of the view that “the incidence and transmission of coronavirus” is a “serious and imminent threat to Northern Ireland,” the Department can make a declaration to that effect.  The declaration will trigger a “transmission control period.”

During the transmission control period, the Department of Health will have the power to direct a potentially infected person towards screening and assessment. It will also have the power to remove that person to a place suitable for assessment and screening. A constable can be requested to do this if it isn’t safe for the Department to do so. The Coronavirus Bill makes it an offence not to comply with the direction of a public health official.

Constables and Immigration Officers also have powers under the bill. If they reasonably suspect that a person in Northern Ireland is “potentially infectious” they may direct that person to go for a screening or assessment or remove them to a place suitable for screening or assessment.

If an infected person is at a place suitable for screening or assessment, a public health officer may “require them to remain at the screening place for up to 48 hours.”

The Department can revoke its declaration, and end the transmission control period,  if it changes its view on the threat to Northern Ireland.

  1. Powers relating to events or gatherings

If the Northern Ireland Executive Office is of the view that Covid-19 is of a “serious and imminent threat to Northern Ireland” it can make a declaration like the Department of Health. Once this declaration is made, Northern Ireland will enter a “public health response period”

During the “public health response” period, the Executive Office can issue directions prohibiting events or gatherings if it is necessary to protect, prevent or delay the spread of coronavirus. The Executive will be able to close premises or impose restrictions upon them.

Before doing any of the above, the Executive must consult with the Chief Medical Officer or Deputy Chief Medical Officers in Northern Ireland. The Executive Office can vary or revoke any Orders it makes.

This section is important in light of the First Minister’s recent comments hat the Executive may need to “enforce social distancing.”

When it comes into operation, how long will it apply? 

S, 75 of the bill states that, ‘This Act expires at the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which it is passed.’  Ministers have the power to shorten that by six months.

This issue is already the subject of much dispute. Tory MP David Davis has proposed an amendment which would see the legislation end after a year. Labour’s Chris Bryant wants MPs to have a vote every 90 days. A cross-party group of MPs have tabled an amendment to the bill that would see the legislation expire after 6 months with the option of extension upon review.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the above reads like something out of dystopian fiction. The Coronavirus Bill hands large swaths of power to the government, Executive and public health officials. For that reason, it’s very important that the bill is scrutinised and analysed by MPs. While it’s easy to see why the legislation is being implemented and why the measures are so stringent, handing any sort of power to the Executive, even in times of crisis, should always be regarded with caution.






Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY

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