When the government announced its action plan against the coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 3, 2020, it suggested that changes to the law might be needed to allow public bodies to best respond to the crisis.
The new emergency coronavirus bill, which passed in the House of Lords on March 25, proposes to ease the burden on frontline NHS and social service staff. On March 30, the government released guidelines for local authority social care teams on when to redefine their resources to respond to the coronavirus.
New Easements of the Care Act mean that the obligation of a local authority to carry out comprehensive needs assessments does not apply if its workforce is drastically reduced or the demand for social services increases to such an extent that it does not is more reasonably possible for the local authority to comply with its obligations under the law on care.
Social Services Assessments
Local authorities are held by the 2014 Care Act in England (and similar legislation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to assess the needs of all people in need of care, determine if they are eligible for state-funded help and provide a care plan if necessary.
But during the pandemic, many health and social service workers could be on sick leave and not be able to do all of their usual tasks. The bill allows local authorities to prioritize their services to ensure that the most urgent and serious care needs are met first.
This may mean not fully meeting everyone’s assessed needs or delaying some needs assessments. Local authorities in the UK will also no longer be required by law to provide care and support plans.
But local services will still be required to do everything possible to comply with their obligations to meet needs during this period. Importantly, these amendments do not remove the duty of care of local authorities to a person at risk of serious neglect or injury.
NHS Continuing Health Care
NHS Continuing Healthcare (CHC) is a program that allows certain people with complex long-term health needs to qualify for free social care. The NHS has a duty to undertake assessments for people who may be eligible for this support before they are discharged from hospital. But the new bill helps delay this process.
This is because NHS Continuing Healthcare assessments may delay discharge from hospital. The bill will allow patients who are ready to leave the hospital to do so as soon as possible.
However, the government says this measure would only be put in place for the shortest period possible at the height of the coronavirus epidemic.
How long will the bill be in place?
The emergency coronavirus bill is temporary and the government says the measures will only be used when strictly necessary.
The new legislation will be in place for two years (and revised every six months).
The bill allows the governments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to “activate” these new powers when needed. Once they are no longer needed, based on the advice of the chief medical officers in each country, governments will be able to deactivate them again.
Why activists are worried
Several health and care charities have expressed concern about the emergency bill. Many fear that vulnerable people will find themselves without support. There is also the question of what will happen if people’s regular caregivers fall ill and cannot cope with their care duties during the pandemic.
Fazilet Hadi, Policy Officer at Disability Rights UK mentionned: “Our main concern is that the bill allows local authorities to suspend rights to assessment and support under the Care Act. Since only those with the highest needs receive the care and support of local authorities, it cannot be fair to leave this group of people without this vital lifeline.
While Caregivers United Kingdom wants the government to consider creating a new payment to support people who have to provide unpaid care to a loved one because there is no alternative care available.
The charity said: “We recognize that these are temporary measures that should help local services better cope with the coronavirus in the event of an extreme emergency, but it is essential that councils continue to assess the risks and vulnerabilities affecting caregivers and the people they support. “