The Government has published the Coronavirus Bill (HC Bill 122). It includes details for shutting down the UK's ports and airports and giving police powers to detain people suspected of having coronavirus. It follows significant economic measures introduced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be time-limited for two years and cover areas such as the NHS, social care, schools, police, Border Force, local councils, funerals and courts. As well as enhancing powers for government, the legislation will also scrap existing regulations in some areas should public services suffer mass staff shortages.
Guidance to the bill can be found here.
NUS Response to the Emergency Bill
The challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic call for extraordinary measures. This Bill has been devised on a cross-party basis and will likely pass without significant debate and formal divisions in order that the law can be amended with greatest speed.
That approach is understandable in the circumstances, though of course we need to ensure that the detail of this Bill does not result in unintended consequences and will monitor this closely. This summary focuses on the provisions in the Bill most relevant to our members, and our initial view on them.
- Provisions allow for the emergency registration of final-year healthcare and social work students
The NHS and other social services will need as many staff as possible to deal with the effects of the pandemic and we support efforts in support of this goal. We will take a lead from those trade unions and professional bodies representing health and social care workers, but at this time are keen to ensure that health and social care students are protected in this process: that there is no compulsion, that they receive pay for any work, and that they have access to protective equipment.
- Provisions suspending or relaxing rules around educational institutions (including FE colleges)
Clearly, educational institutions must have flexibility in their approach to support young people in the context of the pandemic and ensuring that students, staff and others are kept safe. While the exact impact on a given institution will necessarily vary according to circumstance, we need to ensure that there is clear communication with students and that wherever possible their representatives are involved in discussions.
- Powers to close an educational establishment
Again, the safety of students and staff is paramount, and clear communication with students and involvement of representatives in discussions essential. However, in respect of universities we are concerned that any full closure of campuses will cause more problems than it solves, not least because students living in halls of residence may not have any other accommodation available to them (they are care leavers, estranged students or international students unable to travel home), or those that can return to a family home risk spreading Coronavirus when they do. Therefore this power must only be exercised in extreme circumstances, or in ways which allows continued occupation of halls.
- Provisions to support workers with Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
While the provisions to remove the three-day rule on SSP and support small businesses to pay SSP are welcome, these provisions do not go far enough to support students, apprentices and others in part-time, low-paid work who may not qualify for SSP as the current threshold requires pay of at least £118 per week on average. This threshold must be suspended as an emergency measure. Further support for those on zero-hours contracts or in the gig economy must also be considered, as their hours may simply be reduced and full-time students may not be able to claim benefits to replace these earnings.
- What the Bill does not include
There are no provisions in the Bill to support tenants, including those in student accommodation to pay rent where there is disruption to their income, whether earnings or other support. We urgently need action to support renters, including rent holidays. It also does not include provisions around visas and extensions for international students, and we need to ensure they are protected if they are unable to travel back to their home country or term dates change.