Will the expiry of the Coronavirus Act affect community pharmacy teams?
C+D speaks to legal experts about the government’s phasing out of the act at midnight tonight (March 24) and its potential impact on pharmacists and pharmacy staff
Part of the government’s plan to combat COVID-19, the Coronavirus Act was published in the early days of the pandemic and became law March 25, 2020.
Now the expiry date is upon us two years later, C+D spoke with legal experts about how this and waning COVID-19 restrictions might – or might not – affect community pharmacists and their teams.
What is the Coronavirus Act?
The Coronavirus Act formed one of the pillars of the government’s plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Department of Health and Social Care (DH) analysis published in September that year.
It “envisaged […] changes to legislation” that gave “public bodies across the UK the tools and powers they need to carry out an effective response to [the] emergency” the pandemic presented.
The English, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments each reviewed “tools and powers that are set out in statute” and amended existing legislation “to ensure that the UK’s response was consistent and effective”.
Attempting to strike the balance between “protecting the public’s health, and safeguarding individuals’ rights”, the act addressed five key areas of need: to increase the available health and social care workforce; ease the burden on frontline staff; slow the virus; manage the deceased “with respect and dignity”; and support people and businesses.
While half of the original 40 provisions have already expired in the two years since the act was penned, the government plans to phase out another 16 of them “at midnight on March 24”, it wrote in a document detailing its ‘Living with COVID-19’ plan.
Four provisions – including one that allows court hearings to take place using audio and video links – “will be expired within six months”, though the government is currently “seeking approval to make them permanent through other primary legislation”, the DH wrote.
End of act “symbolic for pharmacists”
Noel Wardle, a solicitor and partner at Temple Bright LLP specialising in pharmacy law, tells C+D that the act’s upcoming withdrawal “is probably more symbolic for pharmacists”.
He doubts the expiry of most provisions “will have practical implications" for them.
“I don't really get a sense that [pharmacy teams are] going to feel any change or any difference” come Friday, he says.
A lot of the “most obvious” restrictions and changes the government has implemented in the past two years – such as face mask mandates, restrictions on overseas travelling, and self- isolation requirements – did not in fact come about through the Coronavirus Act, but originated in older legislation, such as the 2006 Health and Social Care Act, he explains.
Most of the legislation that affected pharmacists in the past two years was “already sitting there on the statute book waiting to be used” and was “pinged into life when the pandemic occurred”, Mr Wardle says.
Unlike for doctors and nurses, most parts of the country did not need any legal amendments to allow pharmacists to join the temporary register during the pandemic. However, a specific provision was made for Northern Ireland within the act.
As pharmacists in Northern Ireland are registered with the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI), rather than the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) , “their registration provisions aren't contained within the Pharmacy Order”. As a result, “the PSNI did need a specific power” to temporarily register pharmacists, Mr Wardle explains.
This is due to expire along with the act tonight.
A spokesperson for the PSNI told C+D today that it did invoke the “specific powers” to temporarily register pharmacists during the pandemic and as of today, there are 262 pharmacists on the temporary register.
PSNI will stop accepting applications after March 31 and the temporary register will close in September, provided there are no more peaks in COVID-19 cases, the spokesperson added.
Mr Wardle suggests other provisions in the Coronavirus Act might have indirectly affected pharmacy teams, such as protection from forfeiture or eviction for residential and business tenancies and being able to “pay statutory sick pay from day one”.
Other residual legislation could still affect pharmacy teams
Though the expiration of the Coronavirus Act is expected to have little impact on pharmacists and their teams, Mr Wardle says “there are still some residual parts of the legislation of Coronavirus restrictions that could impact” the sector.
Changes to terms of service that allowed pharmacies to temporarily close if they did not have enough staff “did not flow from the Coronavirus Act”, Mr Wardle says.
This provision remains in the statute books, he explains, and “could be used going forward”.
This is echoed by David Reissner, chair of the Pharmacy Law & Ethics Association, who tells C+D that “the systems put in place in the past […] two years have set up a framework” that can be used “if a similar worldwide pandemic should occur again”.
The legal framework established for the approval and implementation of vaccines, as well as provisions made to allow “manufacturers and suppliers to be free from the risk of being sued when they introduced vaccines” is important to keep in place for future use, he says.
Safeguarding becomes a moral issue
Although the expiry of the Coronavirus Act and the lapsing of restrictions that have defined the past two years of our lives mark a new approach to COVID-19, the issues of mask-wearing and vaccinations still remain “live issues”, Mr Reissner says.
The fact the GPhC announced “it expects all pharmacy workers to be vaccinated”, he continues, enforces a “professional requirement” to be vaccinated even though the legal requirement has been removed.
“What the GPhC is doing is relying on the natural inclination of pharmacy professionals to comply with its professional requirements”, Mr Reissner states. When it comes to face masks, it is up to pharmacy teams about how they enforce that in their retail premises, he says.
If they choose to enforce mask wearing in their premises and “somebody comes into a pharmacy without wearing a face mask, the pharmacist is entitled to say “you have to leave”, he explains.
Did you or your pharmacy make use of any of the provisions under the Coronavirus Act? Join the conversation on the C+D Community