With many businesses facing growing uncertainty, the Government is today set to consider the Coronavirus Bill (“the Bill”), proposing wide ranging amendments to help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, on an expedited basis. Debate will be limited, and the Bill is expected to pass into law before the end of March.
The Bill is set to bring in measures designed to help combat the pandemic, unprecedented in scope since World War II, which confer powers on Ministers to govern by regulation without usual Parliamentary scrutiny, allowing changes to be implemented more quickly. If proposals go ahead as drafted, changes will be effective for two years but in fact appear open-ended, with an option to extend that period by six months exercisable any number of times.
What does it mean for you? Well, although not a comprehensive assessment of the 329-page documents, businesses operating in waste and recycling industries may wish to be mindful of the following proposed provisions:
1. Powers relating to events, gatherings and premises [Section 50; Sch 21]
Shifting powers under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (1) to the Secretary of State (“SoS”), the Bill grants powers, exercisable where the SoS considers them necessary to deal with the pandemic and after having regard to advice from the Department of Health and Social Care, to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings in any place, whether vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, or any movable structure or offshore installation; and, where necessary, to close those premises.
Directions appear likely to be made to owners, occupiers and those responsible for managing entry into premises. They must be given in writing to the person or company concerned, and may also be published at the Secretary of State’s discretion to bring the directions to the attention of those affected.
If a person or corporate body fails, without reasonable excuse, to comply with any direction imposed they/it will be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine. Where offences by corporate bodies are shown to be committed with the “consent or connivance” of an officer (whether director, secretary or other similar officer), or attributable to any neglect on their part, the relevant officer will also be guilty of an offence (personally).
2. Powers to close seaports, airports and international rail terminals [Section 48; Sch 19]
The Bill authorises the SoS to close ports, airports and international rail terminals if, because of an incidence or transmission of coronavirus, there is a real and significant risk that adequate border security cannot be maintained, and other reasonably practicable measures have been taken to mitigate against that risk.
Directions will be issued to relevant port operators (those who do not comply without reasonable excuse in England and Wales will be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine or a term of imprisonment). Suspension periods are limited to an initial six hours, but can be extended on notice indefinitely. The SoS is also granted authority to direct and secure the safe arrival of any conveyance or vehicle at an alternative port.
3. Leave for Emergency Volunteers [Sections 7-8; Sch 6]
The Bill introduces a right for those approved by an “appropriate body” (such as, in England and Wales, a County Council or the SoS for the Health and Social Care) to do so, to act as “emergency volunteers” and to take leave from employment for a period of two, three or four weeks, once during any 16 week period. Workers and employees may do so by presenting their employer with an “emergency volunteering certificate”, specifying the period of their leave, which compensation payable under rules to be set out under section 8.
1. Such as powers to seize, retain, isolate or quarantine items, to disinfect or decontaminate items and premises, to destroy or dispose; and, in the case of a building, conveyance or structure, to destroy premises.
During any period of leave, save wages or salary, the worker is entitled to the benefits (and bound by the obligations) of all of the terms and conditions of their employment, which would have applied had they not been absent through leave: this includes a right to return. Notably, the new provisions will not apply where the worker is employed by an undertaking (i.e. business) with a head count of nine or less staff.
4. Statutory Sick Pay (“SSP”) [Sections 37-42]
Proposals will suspend the effect of current legislation (under the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992), making SSP available from the first day’s sick leave. Eligible employees will be able to claim up to two weeks of SSP, retrospectively from 13 March 2020.
It goes without saying that care will be needed by businesses continuing to trade, with significant commercial disruption likely in the short term, and on-going attention paid to Governmental guidance on self-isolation and social distancing requirements. Enhanced SoS powers will mean those who do not comply with directives risk shut down, so prompt action in response to any such directions will be needed now more than ever to ensure, where possible, the ability to trade can be preserved. Businesses small and large will also need to quickly adapt to changing rules for SSP, ensuring records are maintained, and get to grips with new concepts of “emergency volunteers”.
If you have questions or wish to discuss how current proposals may impact your business, please contact our dispute resolution or employment team on 01753 889995 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.