Covid-19 and Human Rights


Proposed changes to mental health legislation

On the 17th of March, the Government published its proposed legislative changes in the forthcoming Coronavirus Bill.

The Bill will relax safeguards in mental health legislation for up to two years in order to ensure that health services can continue to operate in the event of increased demand. 

NSUN is concerned that significant legislative changes are being rushed through with minimal informed scrutiny, and inadequate consideration as to their impact on the lives and rights of people who live with mental ill health, distress, or trauma.

The Coronavirus Bill proposes two measures related to the detainment of people under the Mental Health Act (commonly known as being sectioned or held under section). 

  1. In order to relieve the burden on front line staff in the NHS and beyond, the power to recommend individuals be detained under the Mental Health Act would be implemented using one doctor’s opinion instead of two. 
  2. The proposed bill would temporarily allow the extension or removal of time limits in mental health legislation. Under the proposed changes, individuals might be released into the community early, or find themselves detained for longer. 

We understand that the proposed extensions to detention would cover the following. Patients may be detained for slightly longer than they otherwise would have been under normal circumstances, in three areas of the law:

  • Under section 5. Emergency detention for people already in hospital would extend from 72 hours to 120 hours, and nurses’ holding powers would extend from 6 to 12 hours.

  • Under sections 135 and 136. Police powers to detain a person found in need of immediate care at a “place of safety” would extend from 24 hours to 36 hours.

  • Under section 35/36. The cap on how long someone can be held in hospital while awaiting a report (currently 12 weeks) would be be lifted 

Whilst we understand that these are unprecedented times, any legislative change must be proportionate and thought through, and should protect all of us. Minimising some of the safeguards in an already coercive Mental Health Act, and extending its powers, is a step in the wrong direction. 

Keeping individuals unnecessarily detained beyond their section because of workforce pressures is a violation of their human rights. Equally, releasing individuals because of pressures on the workforce or the mental health estate is deeply irresponsible.

Community mental health services have been depleted by years of funding cuts, and will be further reduced over the coming months. It is unclear from the wording of the proposal what the changes would look like in practice and what the impact might be on people who live with mental health difficulties. NSUN's concern is that the proposed Coronavirus Bill would have serious consequences for some of the people it seeks to protect, and is a deep and onerous encroachment on both our civil liberties and our rights to appropriate support.

We will continue to scrutinise any legislative changes and ensure that they are human rights compliant.

See NSUN's statement on the Coronavirus Bill

Read more:

NSUN Covid-19 Update

Covid-19: General Information 

Covid-19: Mental Health Information

Covid-19: Advice for User-Led Organisations and Groups 

Covid-19: Mutual Aid 

Covid-19: Keeping in touch with each other when we can't meet face to face

Covid-19: The Coronavirus Bill