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At the time of writing (24th March 2020), the Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 has passed through the House of Commons and is due to enter the House of Lords today. If passed, it will introduce a sweeping new range of legal powers and measures. At the same time governments around the world, including that of the Isle of Man, have implemented similar laws in a desperate bid to curb and discourage behaviours which could exacerbate the spread of the killer virus. Businesses and individuals cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to Coronavirus.
As most readers will be only too aware, the UK is effectively in full lockdown; a fact reaffirmed this morning when I received a text from the Government (sent to all citizens) telling me to stay at home. Last night, at 5 pm, the Government’s emergency Cobra committee implemented three new emergency Coronavirus spread prevention measures requiring:
• People to stay at home, except for very limited purposes
• Closing non-essential shops and community spaces
• Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public
The police and other authorities will have powers to enforce the new measures through fines and forced dispersal of gatherings. Initially, the fines are expected to be £30 for any breach, but I expect the Government to increase these substantially if there continues to be widespread contravention of these new emergency laws.
The new rules will be in place for a period of three weeks, and subject to how effective they are, they may be tightened or relaxed at that point.
The Coronavirus Bill 2019-21 (the Bill) is essentially a temporary emergency toolkit which will allow the authorities to carry out actions which even only a couple of weeks ago would have felt wholly unnecessary and even draconian. We now know that such powers are going to be essential in saving as many lives as possible. The Bill introduces the following legal powers, among many others:
Magistrates courts will be able to impose Coronavirus quarantine orders on individuals if:
• they are known to be infected or contaminated
• the infection or contamination is one which presents or could present significant harm to human health,
• there is a risk that the individual might infect or contaminate others, and
• it is necessary to make the order in order to remove or reduce that risk.
If it is believed items or premises pose a risk of passing Coronavirus on to individuals, orders can be issued to ensure that suitable action is taken, including seizing, disinfecting, destroying, or closure (in the case of property).
The new Bill will introduce stringent measures to make sure there is no interruption to the food supply. In order to enforce this, persons connected with the UK food supply chain will be required by law to divulge if there is a current or potential disruption. If such information is not relayed to the appropriate authority, or is misleading, a maximum fine of 1% of the company’s turnover may be levied.
Other key measures introduced by the Bill include:
• new powers to “restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any movable structure and any offshore installation and, where necessary, to close premises”
• individuals who refuse to undergo a Coronavirus test may be fined £1,000
• more video and audio links will be made available for criminal court proceedings – these measures are intended to avoid “adjournments and keeping business moving through the courts to help reduce delays in the administration of justice and alleviate the impact on families, victims, witnesses and defendants”.
• new powers will enable authorities to detain potentially infectious persons for 48 hours
The Bill spans 329 pages and as such brings in a substantial range of legal changes. While the situation is clearly urgent, authorities will need time to adapt to the new laws and to fully understand how they should be applied. In addition, it will be important that companies, employees, and members of the public understand their obligations under these new laws to ensure that they do not inadvertently find themselves in breach.
In a new development which, if successful, will bring welcome relief to over five million self-employed people across the UK, the House of Commons Public Bill Committee has now proposed a Statutory Self-Employment Pay amendment to the Coronavirus Bill.
If accepted, “freelancers” and “self-employed people” should receive guaranteed earnings of:
(a) 80% of their monthly net earnings, averaged over the last three years; or,
(b) £2,917 per month
whichever is the lower.
The purpose of this amendment is to make the Government’ top up’ self-employed workers’ earnings to the lower of 80% of their net monthly earnings or £2,917 a month.
The Isle of Man government’s newly introduced Coronavirus emergency powers were tested this week. The new law requires all arrivals on the island to self-isolate for 14 days or face a fine of £10,000 or three months in prison. In this case, a 26-year old man, who had arrived on the island and had not self-isolated, was arrested after later handing himself to the police. The police decided not to prosecute the man.
In a recent radio phone-in show, I listened in horror as a man working for a large construction company informed the presenter that while his bosses were all safely working from home, he and his many colleagues were expected to carry on working on a building site with little in the way of protection from Coronavirus spread. He explained that not only had the one container of hand-sanitiser provided long been used up and not replaced, but his employer also insisted all staff still ‘clock-in’ using a fingerprint recognition device at a turn-style to enter the site – meaning that hundreds of workers are touching the same surface throughout the day. To make matters worse, the site has already seen two cases of COVID-19! Furthermore, many of the workers are self-employed and face having no income if they do not continue working in such dangerous conditions.
It really cannot be overstated how imperative it is that health and safety laws are adhered to. Under the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992, all employers have a legal duty to provide suitable personal protective equipment to staff who may be “exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective”. Knowingly exposing staff members to the risk of Coronavirus may lead to serious criminal prosecution including large fines or imprisonment. I would advise all businesses urgently to draw up a risk assessment to find and mitigate any Coronavirus related hazards.
We all have a part to play in protecting our health and that of our colleagues, family, friends, fellow citizens, and neighbours. The new powers to be introduced by the Government will need to be enforced with a rod of iron if they are to be taken seriously. It will, therefore, not be surprising to see those breaching Coronavirus related laws facing serious punishments in the coming weeks and months. You have been warned!