What The Coronavirus Act 2020 means for society’s most vulnerable
The changes in the Coronavirus Act 2020 are intended to enable authorities to prioritise resources, if necessary, should they be unable to meet their statutory duties in full should demand spike and staffing resources shrink significantly as the Covid-19 pandemic reaches its peak.
The Government has insisted that the provisions will only be applied if required. However, they have triggered significant concerns about the undermining of key entitlements to care and support.
The legislation as a whole will be in place for an initial period of two years, though this could be shortened or lengthened by regulations, and it will be reviewed as a whole every six months.
Suspension of Care Act
If the emergency powers are triggered, the Act would suspend the duties on English local authorities to assess the needs of adults, adult carers, disabled children in transition and their carers and young carers who appear to have needs for care and support – or support in the case of carers – and to determine whether such needs were eligible. Councils would also not have to carry out financial assessments though would not be able to charge for care and support without having done so.
The provisions would also weaken the duty under Section 18 of the Care Act to meet adults' unmet eligible needs for care and support, which would only be required if it were necessary to prevent a breach of the person's rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. The same would apply in relation to the duty to meet carers' eligible needs under Section 20 of the Act.
The Act also allows for the suspension of the requirement to prepare or review care and support plans for adults, or support plans for carers, and the duty to provide continuity of care when a person moves between local authority areas.
Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)
Children with disabilities and additional care needs are a group who may be most negatively affected.
Local Authorities will no longer have to comply with their duties under the Care Act to asses children's needs for continuing care after the age of 18. The Act also removes the duty under the Children Act to provide support for young people who may need continuing care after 18 if their assessments have not been completed under the Care Act. Without assessment of their needs and clear support plans in place, a group of children turning 18 in the next few months are likely to be facing a very precarious future. In addition, without this help in place not only may their own health be in danger, but they may also pose a public health risk if they are not supported to self-isolate or stay at home.
In addition, the Act grants powers to the Secretary of State to relax duties on Local Authorities to provide appropriate education and health care to children with additional needs, to admit those children to their chosen school, and review their plans annually. Local Authorities would then only have to make 'reasonable endeavours' to meet those duties.
The Mental Health Act 1983
Rules on detaining people in mental health crisis will also be relaxed under emergency legislation However, mental health experts have warned the measures could lead to vulnerable service users "languishing in hospital" for long periods and say it is vital their rights are protected.
They have also highlighted the crucial role of mental health nurses in providing reassurance to those anxious about delays in key decisions about their care and treatment.
The Coronavirus Act would allow people who need urgent mental health treatment to be detained under the Mental Health Act on the say-so of just one doctor rather than two.
The Act also allows for the removal or extension of time limits in mental health legislation, which could mean people being detained for much longer periods without their case being reviewed.
It is clear that the new Act has triggered widespread concerns about the impact on people with needs and their carers., however the joint statement published on the government website states that:
"This is about keeping people safe. This is not about singling out mental health patients, but unlike other areas, temporary legislative and regulatory changes are required to allow services to flex to ensure the appropriate care continues to be available in extremely challenging circumstances."