The Coronavirus Act 2020- Desperate times and desperate measures
At 5:30PM Wednesday evening the Coronavirus Act was given royal assent and became law in the United Kingdom. It is undoubtedly a truly seismic piece of legislation enabling the government to properly implement the lockdown under which we have now all been placed until the severity of the crisis lessens. Things that in normal times would have been considered legislatively unthinkable are now being implemented, because we no longer live in normal times.
The Act itself is vast and all–encompassing, and passed with overwhelming cross-party support. For our part, as always, we are interested in its consultation aspects. The truth of the matter is that usually almost every one of its provisions would be expected to have been the result of extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, but again we must return to that phrase: we are no longer living in normal times.
During the consideration of the Act, with people appreciating the extraordinary circumstances, consultation came up surprisingly little. In fact, looking at Hansard, it was only brought up as an issue three times, all in the House of Lords and two of them around the same issue. The issue in question was funerals and death care. Anticipating the worst-case scenario that there may be a surge of deaths which may threaten to overwhelm the system the Act introduces certain amendments to the usual procedures which could, in theory, lead to cremations becoming more frequent that burials. Peers raised concerns over this as at least two of the major faiths in the UK consider cremations to be theologically unacceptable. Both contributors sought assurances from the Government that they would consult with representatives on faith communities going forward to ensure the minimisation of problems. Ministers gave that assurance and acknowledged the potential problems. The other mention was a similar seeking of assurances, this time hoping that the government were consulting appropriately with charitable organisations to ensure they were getting the support they needed. Assurances were similarly given.
In light of the nature of the bill as a piece of emergency legislation designed to very quickly tackle a very specific set of circumstances, the lack of general consultation is understandable. It may be that if the current situation looks like it will last for a longer time than anticipated, we start to see some form of consultations and public engagement on non-technical aspects of support schemes and the like to ensure that they are fulfilling their role adequately. Certainly we would hope that in the interests of better decision-making when things have settled a little, in whatever form, then we might see a desire to bring consultation back in on specific measures.
The Institute has been regularly publishing their own coronavirus advice here. In addition to this, Institute associates have produced a wiki and collaboration space about consultation and engagement during the coronavirus emergency which can be found here. Questions should be directed to the Institute.