Coronavirus: Emergency legislation ‘will protect NHS volunteers’

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The government has outlined emergency legislation to tackle coronavirus, including measures to allow people to leave their jobs and volunteer to care for those affected.

Proposals would also allow court cases to be heard via video links.

It comes ahead of an expected move from the UK’s “containment” phase of the outbreak response to “delay”.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged to address the outbreak in his first Budget on Wednesday.

On Saturday, England’s deputy chief medical officer said the UK remained in the containment phase but was “teetering on the edge” of sustained transmission.

The number of confirmed cases in the UK rose from 164 on Friday evening to 209 by Saturday evening.

Earlier this week, the government said it was planning emergency coronavirus legislation, although a timeframe for when it will be brought to the Commons has not yet been announced.

The BBC’s political correspondent Chris Mason said it could be introduced as soon as this month.

Revealing new details of measures expected to be included, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, outlined plans for volunteers to be given additional employment safeguards so they can leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a widespread pandemic.

Around three million people currently volunteer in “a health, community health and social care setting”, the government says.

Under the proposed measures, the jobs of “skilled, experience or qualified volunteers” are to be protected for up to four weeks, and the government will consult businesses on the measures.

‘Delay and mitigate’

Ministers are also thought to be considering allowing some civil proceedings in magistrates’ courts to be conducted via telephone or video, as well as the expansion of audio and video live links in various criminal proceedings.

Following last week’s announcement that measures will also consider the emergency registration of retired health professionals, the new bill will also look at ensuring any retired staff who return to work in the NHS do not have their pensions negatively impacted.

Five hundred extra staff have already been recruited to work on the NHS 111 phone service, after an calls increased by a third over the last week, compared to the same period a year ago.

Mr Hancock said: “We will do all we can to contain coronavirus but, as we know, Covid-19 is spreading across the world. So I want to ensure government is doing everything in its power to be ready to delay and mitigate this threat.

“Public safety is my top priority.

“Responding to coronavirus is a massive national effort and I’m working with colleagues across government to ensure we have a proportionate emergency bill, with the right measures to deal with the impacts of a widespread Covid-19 outbreak.”

Meanwhile, the new Chancellor has promised “targeted measures” in his Budget to help businesses and workers “get through to the other side” of an economic downturn caused by a coronavirus epidemic.

In his first interview as chancellor, with the Daily Telegraph, Mr Sunak said there were plans to give firms extra time to pay tax, if staff were unable to work and shoppers stopped spending money “in the normal way”.

He also said he was “not daunted” by the challenge of protecting the economy in the event of a major outbreak, adding the UK was “well prepared” and would “emerge on the other side stronger”.

Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said the UK was “teetering on the edge” of a sustained community transition of coronavirus. but was not there yet.

She said: “We have surveillance systems in place and we’re watching that on a daily basis.”

The UK’s strategy on responding to the virus has four phases: containment, delay, mitigation and – running alongside these – research.

Up until now, the containment phase has involved catching cases early and tracing all close contacts to halt the spread of the disease for as long as possible,

Moving into the delay phase could see the introduction of “social distancing” measures, such as closing schools and urging people to work from home.

Elsewhere, the family of the second person to die in the UK after contracting the virus paid tribute to a “wonderful husband, dad, grandad and great-grandad”.

The 83-year-old, who had underlying health problems, died shortly after testing positive in hospital on Thursday.

In a statement, his family said they had been unable to arrange a funeral and grieve for him as they would have wanted because they had been required to self-isolate.

In other developments:

As of Sunday morning, there were 209 cases of coronavirus in the UK,

Of these, 184 were in England, 16 in Scotland, four in Northern Ireland and two in Wales. So far more than 21,000 people have been tested for the virus.

Globally, the number of coronavirus cases has now passed 100,000, with 3,400 deaths.

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