UK’s emergency coronavirus bill ‘will put vulnerable at risk’ | Society

Emergency measures to tackle the coronavirus will put disabled and older people at risk, charities and human rights experts are warning.

Campaigners warn that measures being introduced in the government’s coronavirus bill will temporarily remove the legal duty on councils to provide social care to all who are eligible.

Clauses in the bill, which will be debated in parliament on Monday, suspend existing duties requiring councils to meet the eligible needs of vulnerable older people, disabled people, and care leavers moving into adult social care.

The intention of the social care clauses is to allow councils to prioritise care for those they consider most at risk in the event that adult social care services become overwhelmed by surging demand or staff absences.

A government impact assessment says that if triggered, “these clauses could result in individuals not receiving support for some needs where local authorities judge that resources need to be focused on meeting the most acute and pressing needs”.

The charity Disability Rights UK said: “Given the already broken social care system this bill will almost inevitably leave many thousands of disabled people without essential support or any rights to request this support. Rolling back our rights is not good for anyone and in the current circumstances will put many lives at risk.

“Rather than removing disabled people’s right to social care support the government must treat our essential social care service as key infrastructure, alongside the NHS, and as such it must immediately provide the necessary funding to keep this vital service running.”

While the wide-ranging bill is expected to pass through the Commons without opposition parties forcing any votes, it is expected some changes will be made amid disquiet among some MPs and civil liberties groups over two main areas.

UK Covid-19 hotspots

One is that the powers detailed under the bill, as published, remain in force for two years. There are signs the government might give way to requests from Labour and others for the powers to be reviewed every six months. As the bill stands, the only obligation is for Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to report to the Commons about the powers every week, with a motion put before MPs after a year.

A separate clause in the coronavirus bill temporarily amends the Mental Health Act to make it easier to section people into mental health facilities, and to keep them detained there for longer periods.

Other elements of the bill give legal force to the closure of schools and nurseries, allow ministers to ban gatherings, and give extra powers to intervene if the government suspects anyone is disrupting the distribution of food. Another element would permit the closure of the UK’s borders if too many border staff fell ill.

Among the most draconian possible powers is for police, public health and immigration officers to detain people suspected of having Covid-19, force them to isolate and fine them if they refuse a test.

Currently local authorities are required by the Care Act to assess the needs of all people who need care and support, consider whether they are eligible for state-funded support, and where necessary provide a plan of care.

However, the government argues that at the peak of the crisis it may be impossible for councils to continue to maintain current service levels, or undertake the detailed assessments they would usually provide

It argues that as the impact of coronavirus peaks “it is crucial that local authorities should be able to prioritise care in order to protect life and reach rapid decisions over the provision of care without undertaking full Care Act compliant assessments”.

It adds: “These provisions, which would only be brought into operation for the shortest possible time at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, would allow local authorities to do this by temporarily releasing them from some of their duties under the Care Act 2014.”

It says that even during the operation of these changes, councils would still be expected to continue meeting all of their duties under the act if they are able to do so.

Jamie Burton, a barrister and chair of the human rights campaign Just Fair, tweeted: “This is of course a serious health crisis. But it is hard to think that these changes won’t make it worse. Critically, the link between current failures to meet care needs and pressure on the NHS is well established. Now does not seem like a good time to test that evidence.”

Harriet Harman, the Labour MP who chairs the cross-party human rights committee, said: “Times of national crisis call for strong and decisive leadership. However, at this time, it is also vitally important that checks and balances are in place to ensure that human rights are not disregarded, and that people remain fully protected under the law.”

Elsewhere, the new law aims to ease pressures on the NHS by allowing recently retired medical staff and students who have nearly qualified to work immediately, with protection given against any negligence claims. Other provisions are connected to improving access to statutory sick pay and speeding up the process for funerals.

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