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The Coronavirus Act 2020 (the Act) received royal assent and became law on 25 March 2020. This wide-ranging legislation conferred a suite of powers and temporary flexibilities intended to enable the public sector to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Act included provisions to ease the strain on the coronial system from the anticipated significant numbers of excess deaths by modifying the Notification of Deaths Regulations 2019. For example, the modified Regulations stipulated that (a) there is no need to notify the coroner if any medical practitioner can complete the medical certificate of cause of death (MCCD) to the best of their knowledge within a reasonable period; (b) a death may be registered if a medical practitioner attended the deceased within 28, rather than the previous 14, days; and (c) a Covid-19 death was not a reason of its own to notify the death to the coroner (being a naturally occurring disease).
In response to this the Chief Coroner issued Guidance on Covid-19 on 26 March 2020 and a Summary of the provisions of the Act relevant to coroners intended to not only support coroners, but also those involved with the coronial system whose workloads would likely be affected by the pandemic, for example medical professionals with primary care commitments. Extensions of timeframes within the coronial process and the holding of inquests remotely were suggested as a pragmatic exercise of coroners’ discretion and judgments.
On 24 March 2022 the Act will expire. Some of its changes will continue on a permanent basis, some will be suspended if the Government thinks it might need them again in another pandemic wave, and others will end (see the Government’s Living with Covid policy paper). It is anticipated that the following provisions will continue after the expiry of the Act (see the House of Commons Library Insight article):
However, in contrast, it is expected that the emergency provision temporarily allowing any medical practitioner to complete the MCCD, will be discontinued. Also, the changes to the registration of stillbirths and authorisation of cremations will expire.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the adjournment of many inquests posing significant delays and administrative backlogs. As the current pandemic and hospital admissions ease, the lifting of restrictions on the coronial system reflects the national opening up of the public sector as we all learn to live with Covid-19. Whether, or how quickly, this eases the backlog remains to be seen.
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