Coronavirus: Emergency Bill includes powers to force schools to stay open

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Emergency coronavirus legislation will give the government powers to force schools and childcare providers to stay open.

The emergency Coronavirus Bill is to be rushed through Parliament and will give the government sweeping powers limited in time for two years.

For schools, the Bill details powers to allow the government to “require educational institutions or childcare providers to stay open”.

It has already been met with concern from school leaders, who have pointed out that with severe staff shortages already forcing increasing numbers of school closures, these powers seem “entirely irrelevant”.

The Bill would also give the government the power to relax “some requirements around education legislation” in order to help schools run effectively.

It states: “This could include reducing teacher ratios, adapting school meal standards and relaxing provisions for those with SEN. This will ensure that children, young people and those who work with them remain safe, while minimising disruption to everyday life and progression to further and higher education or employment by ensuring schools have the flexibility and support they need to respond pragmatically to the changing situation.”

Guidance to the proposals in the Bill, published by the Department for Health and Social Care this week, states: “The legislation will be time-limited – for two years – and not all of these measures will come into force immediately.

“The Bill allows the four UK governments to switch on these new powers when they are needed, and, crucially, to switch them off again once they are no longer necessary, based on the advice of Chief Medical Officers of the four nations.

“The measures in the Coronavirus Bill are temporary, proportionate to the threat we face, will only be used when strictly necessary and be in place for as long as required to respond to the situation.”

The National Association of Head Teachers has expressed concerns about the “content of the bill and its potential implication for schools”. General secretary Paul Whiteman explained: “Over the last week teachers and school leaders have played a leading role in the response to this national crisis, and they stand ready to continue to do so. In order for that response to continue to be effective, government must work with the profession.

"It is hard to see how these measures could even work in practice. If there are not enough healthy teachers to run a school, the powers to compel it to open seem entirely irrelevant. Taking powers that are unenforceable is at best pointless, and at worst potentially counter-productive.

"Our sincere hope is that the government will trust school leaders on the ground to make the right decision for the safety and wellbeing of their pupils. Tough words and draconian powers are the last thing schools need right now.”

More widely, the Bill covers a range of other areas, not least outlining powers relating to the health and social care workforce. It includes powers across five core areas:

  • Increasing the available health and social care workforce.
  • Easing the burden on frontline staff.
  • Containing and slowing the virus.
  • Managing the deceased.
  • Supporting people.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “The new measures we will be introducing in the Emergency Coronavirus Bill will only be used when it is absolutely necessary and must be timed to maximise their effectiveness, but crucially they give the government the powers it needs to protect lives.

“By planning for the worst and working for the best we will get through this, but this is a national effort and we must all work together ‒ from businesses prioritising the welfare of their employees, to people thoroughly washing their hands.”

Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty added: “Our approach to responding to this outbreak has and will remain driven by the scientific and clinical evidence so we do the right thing at the right time. The measures included in this bill will help support our frontline workers, protect the public and delay the peak of the virus to the summer months when the NHS is typically under less pressure.”


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