Coronavirus Act – what you need to know
The Coronavirus Act 2020 (the “Act”) was brought into law on 25 March 2020 in response to the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic. Its general scope is to provide the government with sufficient authority to be able to manage and contain the ongoing spread of the virus.
The Act is intended to be in force for the next two years so that there is sufficient time to deal with the fallout of the epidemic. However, the government has the ability to extend this date, or other time limits throughout the act, where necessary and even stop the powers earlier if they are no longer required. Whilst this article is correct at time of writing it is worth checking with us to see whether any extensions have been made after the date of this blog.
As a general summary, the Act has been passed to assist individuals and grant additional powers to the government to legislate in these difficult times. Below we outline some of the new powers created and how these may affect you and your business.
Emergency Volunteering Leave
This is a right for staff who have skills in healthcare to take emergency voluntary leave to assist the NHS. A certificate must be provided by the employee to the employer at least three working days before voluntary leave is taken. This period of leave can last for up to four weeks, within a sixteen week period. There are restrictions on who can take such leave, the most applicable being where there are ten or less employees within a business.
Where an employee takes this leave they are entitled to return to their existing job on the same terms as they left. Therefore no changes can be made to their employment status, hours or salary for example. The Act also makes clear that pensions are also unaffected and necessary wording has been incorporated into the relevant employment statutes.
The Act does state that an employee is entitled to claim compensation from the government for any earnings lost due to emergency volunteering and confirms that ‘remuneration’ (defined as wages or salary) will not form part of their employment contract during the volunteering leave.
Statutory Sick Pay
Employers of less than 250 staff can reclaim statutory sick pay (SSP) payments made to employees due to their absence as a result of Coronavirus. Regulations in respect of this are to be made by HMRC and we would suggest contacting them in the first instance to ascertain how claims can be made. Payment of SSP will begin on the first day of illness due to Coronavirus so your record keeping should reflect this.
Industrial Development Act Financial Assistance
The government already has statutory powers to provide financial assistance but with certain limits and criteria attached. The Act allows for further assistance to be provided which does not count towards any existing limits where payments have been made. Assistance can only be provided where it is felt by government that it will prevent, reduce or compensate for the effect of Coronavirus.
Residential Tenancy Evictions
Under normal circumstances landlords can provide two months’ notice to tenants to leave their premises where tenancies have expired or are approaching the end of their term. Under the Act such notices have been extended to three months to provide tenants with greater security. This extended notice period currently applies until 30 September 2020.
Notice periods are relevant whether you are seeking possession due to breach of the tenancy or simply due to the tenancy ending. During notice periods tenants will still be required to comply with the terms of their tenancy, i.e. pay the rent; but we appreciate this will not assist landlords who are looking to take action due to non-payment!
We suggest that if you do let properties that you speak to your tenants to find out their financial position and, if necessary, come to an agreement as to how the rent will be paid rather than waiting to see if it will be paid.
The Act does not protect common law tenancies, licences or employees who occupy accommodation as part of their employment. Please contact us if you have any queries about the type of tenancy you have in place.
Commercial Tenancy Evictions
We have already prepared in-depth guidance in respect of this and further information can be found here.
Closure of Educational Facilities and Childcare Premises
All schools are currently closed, except where providing care for children of key workers. The Act gives the government carte blanche to close schools for as long as necessary. You will need to make provision for staff should they be unable to access childcare through other means.
Local authorities have the ability to vary term times, the hours the schools can open and whose children are allowed to attend. This means some employees may be able to obtain childcare.
Please note that there is no time limit on how long closures can last so contingencies should be in place in the event staff require more flexible working hours.
Powers Relating to Infectious Persons
The government has reserved the right to detain and quarantine individuals who risk infecting others due to having, or potentially having, coronavirus. The government also reserve the right to quarantine individuals if they have travelled to areas deemed as infected within the last fourteen days (at the time of writing this article it can be presumed this relates to the majority of the world).
There is no guidance for employers about how they should deal with the potentially infectious persons. Our advice is to send staff home, if they’re not already working from home, to self-isolate or contact the NHS for further information. Government guidance states that staff should be working from home where possible under the current social distancing policy. Where an employee cannot work due to contracting coronavirus or having to self-isolate SSP may apply (see above).
Powers to Control Events, Gatherings and Premises
The government has the power to restrict any events, gatherings or access to premises where they believe that such meetings or places will result in the spread of coronavirus. Given that the government can specify the types of premises that need to remain closed it may well be that as the epidemic eases an increasing number of premises will be allowed to trade. We do not anticipate a general lifting of the prohibitions but a measured approach to test the waters.
It is an offence to operate a premises whilst under a restriction and is punishable by an unlimited fine. Please also note that restrictions may only be imposed on the owner or occupier of premises or those in control of access, meaning there is a risk of personal fines, as opposed to fines on the company, in the event of breaches.
We have noticed an increase in interest from clients for wills and lasting powers of attorney to be prepared. If you have any questions about either of these, then please give us a call and we shall be happy to discuss them with you.
As you will see the government has reserved unprecedented powers in order to combat the ongoing epidemic and have the ability to extend the periods of control further than the initial two years should the situation demand.
This article does not constitute an exhaustive list of the provisions contained within the Act and it is intended only as general guidance.
If you do have any queries or concerns about the Act, and how this may affect you or your business, then please telephone us and we will be happy to assist.