COVID-19: Explaining the Legal & Ethical Dimensions and Providing Professional & Public Guidance

COVID-19: Challenges of Coordination and Variation for UK Health Professionals

This project seeks to track and analyse developments in law and policy as these apply to health professionals and the contexts in which they work across the four nations of the UK. Its aim is to generate clear, accessible understanding and evaluation to inform and engage in ongoing future planning, practice, and public debate.

The public health emergency created by the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 has led to governments across the world instituting extraordinary legal and policy measures. Equally, professional, regulatory, and advisory organisations have been issuing guidance with a view to coordinating practical responses to the pandemic. This includes organisations that regulate and represent different health professionals across different sectors.

The need for urgent action has been based on requirements to protect the public’s health and to prevent crucial parts of social infrastructures, such as healthcare systems, from becoming critically overwhelmed. However, the speed at which the crisis has unfolded, its surrounding uncertainties, and the direct and indirect consequences of different measures and interventions, all invite careful and continued scrutiny of the framing and operation of the laws, policies, and regulatory instruments that have been put in place.

UK Health Law and COVID-19

In the UK on 25th March 2020, the Coronavirus Act was passed into law. Alongside other public health legislation, this statute is intended to underpin responses across the UK to contain and control the spread and impacts of COVID-19. The legal powers that have been created, albeit not all (yet) put into effect, are by their nature exceptional. The Department for Health and Social Care’s Explanatory Notes on the Coronavirus Act explain that the statute is intended to “enable the right people from public bodies across the UK to take appropriate actions at the right times to manage the effects of the outbreak”. They go on to say:

This Act is just one part of the overall solution. It has therefore not been necessary for each tool or power needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic to be covered by this Act. Some exist already in statute. Some exist in some parts of the UK but not others. This Act aims to level up powers across the UK, so that the actions to tackle this threat can be carried out effectively across all four nations.

Health professionals and the organisations for which they work are amongst the key actors leading efforts to respond to the pandemic. This includes people working in healthcare institutions such as hospitals, as well as public health professionals and healthcare workers in community settings. These professionals and organisations need to work in accordance with complex ethico-legal structures. They must have due regard to the lawfulness of their activities in circumstances that give rise to acute concerns about powers being exercised fairly and proportionately, with careful consideration of questions of equality, human rights, and respect for the rule of law. They also need to take account of the legal rules and ethical guidance as laid down by the UK government, by devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, by local authorities, by executive agencies, and by professional and other organisations at all levels; from the international to the local.


A Cross-UK Law and Public Health Collaboration. Find out more about the project.

Health Law and COVID-19: Resources

Explanatory materials developed to promote understanding of legal and regulatory measures instituted in the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created enormous challenges for health professionals, bound up in concerns about equity and social justice. This time calls for responsive, collaborative engagement with perspectives reaching across sectors and approaches. Governance for the public’s health must account for concerns about human rights, ethical and legal complexity, and the diversity in approaches across, and beyond, the UK.

Professor John Coggon

Contact us

To find out more about the project please contact us via email in the first instance.


This project is supported by:

  • The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, University of Bristol
  • The School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University
  • University of Edinburgh Law School
  • The Economic and Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account at Queen’s University Belfast
  • The UK Faculty of Public Health

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