When the government announced its coronavirus (COVID-19) action plan on 3 March 2020, it suggested changes to the law might be needed to allow public bodies to best respond to the crisis.
The new emergency Coronavirus Bill, which was passed in the House of Lords on 25 March, proposes to ease the burden on frontline NHS and social care staff. On March 30, the government published guidance for social care teams in local authorities on when to reprioritise their resources to respond to coronavirus.
The new mean a local authority's duty to carry out full needs assessments does not apply if their workforce is significantly depleted, or the demand on social care increases to an extent that it is no longer reasonably practicable for the local authority to comply with its Care Act duties.
Local authorities are required by the (and similar legislation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to assess the needs of all people who need care, consider whether they are eligible for state-funded support, and provide a care plan where necessary.
But during the pandemic, many health and social care staff could be off sick and may not be able to carry out all their usual duties. The bill enables local authorities to prioritise their services to ensure the most urgent and serious care needs are met first.
But local services will still be expected to do as much as they can to comply with their duties to meet needs during this period. And importantly, these amendments don't remove the duty of care local authorities have towards someone at risk of serious neglect or harm.
NHS Continuing Healthcare (CHC) is a scheme that allows some people with long-term complex 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 allows a delay to this process.
This is because NHS Continuing Healthcare assessments can cause delays to hospital discharge. The bill will allow patients who are ready to leave hospital to do so as soon as possible.
However, the government says this measure would only be brought in for the shortest possible time at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
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 reviewed every six months).
The bill allows governments in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to 'switch on' these new powers when they are needed. Once they are no longer required, based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officers in each country, governments will be able to switch them off again.
Several health and care charities have expressed concern about the emergency bill. Many are worried that vulnerable people will be left without support. There is also the question of what will happen if people's usual carers fall ill and cannot carry out their caring duties during the pandemic.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK : 'Our key concern is that the bill enables local authorities to suspend rights to assessment and support under the Care Act. Given that it is only people with the highest needs that receive local authority care and support, it can't be right to leave this group of people without this vital lifeline.'
The charity says: 'We recognise these are temporary measures which should help local services better deal with coronavirus in a time of extreme emergency, but it is essential that councils continue to assess the risks and vulnerabilities affecting carers and the people they support.