Legal implications of the coronavirus

Posted on 11th March 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) originating from China on 31st December 2019 has now infected over 120,000 people in over 100 countries. As at 11th March there was over 380 reported and confirmed cases in the UK with 6 deaths.

The risk level has been raised from low to moderate and the UK government produced an action plan on 3rd March 2020 to deal with the growing epidemic.

Emergency legislation

On 10th February 2020, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care brought in the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 which allows authorities the right to screen, restrict and quarantine people suspected of carrying the virus.

Plans are also underway for further emergency legislation to be passed including the following measures:

  • Virtual courts for criminal and civil cases to be conducted by telephone or video link
  • Volunteers to be given the right to leave their paid jobs (up to 4 weeks) to help the health service
  • Ability to suspend laws on classroom size and working hours

Last month saw law firm Baker McKenzie send over 1000 staff home when one employee returned from northern Italy and was taken ill.

Some firms are considering whether to advise on the shaking of hands.

Contractual implications

In contracts, there are usually force majeure clauses which allow protection in the event that you cannot perform your contractual obligations due to an unexpected circumstance outside of reasonable control. The starting point will also be to check the exact terms of the contract carefully.

Alternatively, a party may argue that the contract has been ‘frustrated’ and so a contract can no longer be performed. These are inherently difficult arguments to make and should be a final resort.

In commercial lease, you may need to consider whether rent suspension will kick in due to whether one could argue that the coronavirus is an ‘uninsured risk’.

Cancellation of holidays

Amid the growing fears, many airlines have cancelled or suspended flights. You should be able to claim a refund or be able to re-book the flights at a later date.

If you decide to cancel your flights, then much will depend on whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (“FCO”) have advised against travel to your intended destination.

Much discretion is being exercised by the major travel company companies and whilst they may not refund you in full, they may allow you to re-book your flights at a later date or to another destination.

It is always advisable to have taken out travel insurance when booking holidays (even if you are only booking flights and/or hotels separately) and the benefits of doing so become evident in situations like this. However, policies vary greatly and you will need to refer back to the individual terms and conditions to see what cover is provided. You will have had to have purchased the policy before the FCO has declared against travel to that country.

For the fullest cover, you should consider policies which pay out for ‘travel disruption’ so that even if your flights are refunded, any corresponding accommodation can also be cancelled and refunded.

You also perhaps consider paying a bit more to allow the automatic right of cancellation, even if you just change your mind.

Cancellation of events

Holidays are not the only things being cancelled. Major sports and other international events have also suffered casualties.

If the organiser of the event has cancelled due to the risk of large crowds in the wake of the continued spread of the coronavirus, then you should be entitled to a full refund less any additional costs (such as booking fees or postage).

If you decide not to take the risk and no longer wish to attend a scheduled event, then the rules are less clear. Again, major companies may exercise a degree of discretion and allow a full refund at this stage. You can also consider re-sale on official websites subject to any additional administrative fees.

Caution

Whilst highly contagious, only the old or those with underlying health issues are likely to die from the coronavirus. We have to view this in context.

We have to be careful and cautious, following appropriate guidelines on good hygiene; unjustified panic and ignorance is fuelling bias and racism, and causing out of proportion stock piling of essentials.

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