The Coronavirus Act 2020 and Emergency Arrangements

The justice system (and society generally) has seen incredible upheaval as a result of the recent viral outbreak. Not since the second world war have such drastic measures been necessary to manage risks in society.

One of the legislative measures the Government has deemed necessary is the Coronavirus Act 2020. The Act is now in force, having received royal assent on 25th March. It is wide-ranging, creates a raft of new criminal offences (some punishable with imprisonment), and affects all citizens.

What it enables the Government to do is respond to the current emergency and manage the effects of the pandemic. To do so, the criminal law is employed. There are several provisions and powers that should be noted by criminal and regulatory practitioners.

Infectious Persons

The Act creates powers, under Schedule 21, relating to potentially infectious persons. Those persons can be directed to attend, be removed to or be kept at suitable locations for screening and assessment. If a person fails without reasonable excuse to comply with any direction, reasonable instruction, requirement or restriction issued to them or otherwise imposed in accordance with the Act, they will be guilty of an offence and can be fined up to £1000.

The restriction and closure of events, gatherings and premises

The Act also creates powers under Schedule 22 that allow the Secretary of State to prohibit or restrict events and gatherings and to close premises if deemed necessary. A failure to comply without reasonable excuse with a prohibition, requirement or restriction imposed under Schedule 22 can result in a criminal conviction and unlimited fine.

Covid-19 inquests

Section 30 Act has the effect of suspending the requirement to hold an inquest with a jury in England and Wales where the cause of death was Covid-19 (Covid-19 no longer being a notifiable disease). The stated purpose of this is to reduce the number of jury inquests that Coroners will be required to deal with in the coming months and years. In the Explanatory Notes to the Act the Government rationale behind this is stated as being to allow bereaved families to obtain “swift closure”.

Criminal courts and audio/video links

Part 1 of the Act expands the powers of the courts under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, allowing courts to deal with more cases by live audio or video link. We are seeing the effect of this already as some criminal hearings are being heard using Skype for Business and other similar platforms. Use of such platforms is allowing justice to continue being done whilst adhering to Government guidance that nobody should attend court in person if possible.

Closure of ports

The Act creates a criminal offence of failing to comply with a direction to close ports (if such a direction is issued), which is punishable with up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

Warrants under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016

Section 23 of the Act has the effect of extending the period during which a Judicial Commissioner can retrospectively authorise a warrant under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. This therefore extends the lifespan of the warrant for up to 12 working days, allowing greater flexibility to investigating bodies.

Fingerprints and DNA profiles

The Secretary of State may make regulations extending, for up to six months, the period for which fingerprints and DNA profiles may be retained in certain circumstances.

Should you have any queries about the Act, offences or legal issues related to Coronavirus/Covid-19 or dealing with the implications of the outbreak in a health and safety context, please contact Lee Hughes via his clerk, David Wright