Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

England: Coronavirus Declared “Serious and Imminent Threat” to Public Health; Regulations Passed to Enable Detention and Isolation

(Mar. 3, 2020) On February 10, 2020, the secretary of state for health and social care of the United Kingdom, Matt Hancock, introduced the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, which enable a number of public health measures aimed at reducing the public health risks in England arising from Wuhan novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). The Regulations enable the secretary of state to screen, detain, or isolate individuals, as well as restrict a person’s travel, activities, and contact with other people. The Regulations also provide the police with the powers to enforce the Regulations and to detain individuals they believe may be infected with the coronavirus and pose a risk to others.

The Regulations were made under the emergency procedures contained in section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 and not laid before Parliament for approval, with the secretary of state declaring in accordance with this section that that the coronavirus poses a serious and imminent threat to public health and that the Regulations contain provisions that are an effective method of delaying or preventing the transmission of the virus. Specifically, the secretary of state declared,

[i]t is the opinion of the Secretary of State that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make the order without a draft being so laid and approved so that public health measures can be taken in order to quickly respond to the threat to human health from the new strain of Wuhan novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and reduce the risk of it becoming more widespread in the community.

As a result, the Regulations are temporary and expire 28 days after entering into force, unless they are approved by a resolution from both the House of Lords and House of Commons. If the Regulations are approved by both Houses, they will expire two years after entering into force, or as long as the illness poses a risk to public health and “where there remains a realistic prospect of preventing an epidemic in the UK. In other words, if and when [the] virus becomes established with sustained widespread transmission in the UK there would no longer be reason to apply these regulations.”

The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 provides the secretary of state with the power to make regulations (referred to as “health protection regulations”) to prevent, protect against, control, and provide a public health response to an incident or to the spread of infection or contamination in England, even if the threat originated from outside the country. The Act provides examples of powers that the secretary of state may exercise by regulation, including

(a) imposing duties on registered medical practitioners or other persons to record and notify cases or suspected cases of infection or contamination,

(b) conferring on local authorities or other persons functions in relation to the monitoring of public health risks, and

(c) imposing or enabling the imposition of restrictions or requirements on or in relation to persons, things or premises in the event of, or in response to, a threat to public health.

The restrictions may include keeping a child away from school, prohibitions or restrictions on events or gatherings, or requirements with regard to the handling and treatment of dead bodies. In cases where the regulations are made in response to a serious and imminent threat to public health, as in this instance, the secretary of state may make regulations imposing a “special restriction or requirement.” Any restriction imposed under the provisions of this Act must be proportionate to the aim that it is trying to achieve.