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Under the Care Act 2014, local authorities in England have a range of duties relating to assessing and meeting the care and support needs of adults and their carers. This includes, for example, a duty to meet an adult’s assessed needs where they meet prescribed national eligibility criteria.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 provides for a relaxation of local authority duties around the provision of care and support needs. For example, local authorities will only be under a duty to meet a person’s eligible needs where not doing so would breach their human rights.

The changes were brought into force on 31 March 2020, meaning that local authorities in England are now able, if they deem it necessary, to adapt their adult social care provision in line with the relaxed duties (referred to as the Care Act easements).

The Government has published guidance for local authorities on when they should use the Care Act easements and how they should prioritise adult social care during the coronavirus outbreak. It has also published an ethical framework intended to “ensure that ample consideration is given to a series of ethical values and principles when organising and delivering social care for adults” during this period.

Concerns have been expressed that the relaxation of local authority duties could result in care standards being lowered to dangerously low levels, putting elderly and disabled people at risk. The Government has, however, stated that the changes are aimed at enabling local authorities to prioritise the social care services they offer in order to ensure that the most urgent and serious care needs are met. It has also emphasised that the easements “should only be used by local authorities where this is essential in order to maintain the highest possible level of services”, and authorities will be expected to comply with their pre-amendment duties under the Care Act for as long and as far as possible.

As at 30 April 2020 seven local authorities were operating under the Care Act easements. However, by 3 July no local authorities were currently operating under them and this remains the case at the time of writing (9 October 2020).

If a person disagrees with a local authority’s decision regarding their social care they can complain to the authority. If, after completing the local authority complaints process, a person is still not satisfied, they can raise the matter with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. On 26 March 2020 the Ombudsman announced that it had suspended “all casework activity that demands information from, or action by, local authorities and care providers, in light of the current Coronavirus outbreak.” However, from 29 June the Ombudsman resumed all existing casework and began taking new complaints through its website.

In a report in September 2020, the Joint Committee on Human Rights cited concerns that, despite limited use of the easements, social care provision had been reduced, including in areas where the easements had not been used.

A Government analysis of the Coronavirus Act published in September 2020 stated that the easements had been used responsibly and the option to use them in the event of a second wave could be “incredibly helpful.”

This briefing covers England only. For information on the Coronavirus Act’s social care provisions in respect of Scotland and Wales, see Library Briefing 8861, Coronavirus Bill: health and social care measures.

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