Virtual courts are to be set up to hear criminal and civil cases as part of emergency laws planned by the government to ramp up the UK’s efforts to defeat the coronavirus epidemic, health secretary Matt Hancock was due to announce on Sunday.
More than three million volunteers will also be given the right to leave their paid jobs for up to four weeks to help the health service cope in the event of a widespread outbreak.
Within days ministers are expected to signal the end of efforts to try and contain the virus as the number of confirmed cases in the UK soared to 209 on Saturday.
The government is preparing to unveil an emergency bill to put before MPs which will grant it sweeping powers to fight the disease.
The Covid-19 Emergency Bill will include measure to allow civil proceedings in magistrates’ courts to be carried out via telephone or video, as well as expanding the use of audio and video links in criminal proceedings.
This will mean anyone who is forced to self-isolate due to coronavirus will still be able to appeal to a court and courts will be able to continue working even during the height of the epidemic.
Health bosses also want to make full use of the existing army of three million volunteers in the NHS with powers to prevent employers from taking any action against them if they leave their jobs to help during the outbreak.
Any volunteer who decides to temporarily volunteer full-time for the NHS will be given employment protection for up to four weeks.
The government is to consult with business leaders over how best to implement the changes.
Retired doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff will also be protected from any impact on their pensions if they choose to return to work during the outbreak.
The emergency legislation will include safeguards with so-called sunset clauses to end the powers but not until after two years, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
It added the government would only use the measures if needed – based on clinical and scientific advice.
Health secretary Matt 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.”
The health service has boosted the NHS 111 advice line with 500 extra staff after the helpline received 120,000 extra calls in the past week. Between Thursday 27 February and Thursday 5 March, NHS 111 answered 389,779 calls – 38 calls every minute.
The increasing efforts to tackle the virus came as Italian doctors warned their hospitals have been overwhelmed with 10 per cent of all positive coronavirus patients needing intensive care.
Across Whitehall, civil servants are preparing each division to cope with the expected fallout, with sporting bodies due to meet with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on Monday while Defra is due to meet with supermarket bosses later this week.
Dozens of patients confirmed to have coronavirus are being quarantined in their own homes with public health officials scrambling to try and identify who they have been in contact with.
The government has launched a public health campaign to reinforce its key message that people should wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
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