UK Parliament to Scrutinise Human Rights Implications of Government's Response to COVID-19

There is growing concern from UK-based rights groups that the global pandemic will be used to disproportionately curb civil liberties and human rights as the government is demanding sweeping powers for an extended period of time.

UK's parliamentary committee on human rights is reviewing the actions taken by government to tackle COVID-19, to ensure human rights aren't being trampled upon. The Joint Committee on Human Rights began its inquiry on 19 March 2020, and the evidence gathering stage is expended to last five months. Meanwhile a debate is scheduled for 23 March 2020 over the Coronavirus Bill, which will temporarily loosen certain regulations and expand state powers. 

​There is concern among civil liberties and human rights organisations over the use and misuse of criminal laws, and emergency powers, while COVID-19 is being addressed by government.

​The Joint Committee on Human Rights is made up of members from both the House of Lords as well as the House of Commons. As part of their inquiry they released a briefing which notes that the government already has at its disposal extensive powers to deal with public health emergencies via the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the Health Protection  (2A Orders) (Local Authority Powers) and (Notification) Regulations 2010 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020.

They write that emergency measures must be shown to be necessary, justified and proportionate in every circumstance and adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which forms part of UK law.

Because some groups may be more impacted than others - for example if they are elderly and forced to self-isolate, if they are younger and denied education, if they are unemployed or self-employed and denied the right to work, the government must do whatever it can to mitigate the impact of its policies, especially in respect of these more vulnerable groups.

Whilst the Joint Committee notes that the government has a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect life, including from diseases, it also must not infringe upon fundamental rights any more than is justifiable after taking into consideration all relevant circumstances.

Examples given by the Joint Committee, of issues which may arise from the UK government's response to the health emergency, include:

  • Quarantine (which will impact right to liberty, Article 5 of the ECHR; and the right to a family life, Article 8).
  • Rationing health care (which will impact right to life, protected in Article 2; and the right to be free of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Article 3).  "Efforts to prioritise health care will need to be justifiable and non-discriminatory", the Committee says and the, "minimum requirements under Articles 2 and 3 must be met even if such [non-discriminatory] measures are introduced".
  • Reducing the numbers of health care professionals or care workers needed for certain functions so they are freed up to work on the emergency response, (which will impact rights in Articles 2 and 3).
  • Restrictions on visits from family and friends for those in quarantine or self-isolating (will impact the rights in Article 8).
  • Prohibitions on public meetings and gatherings of more than a certain number of people (will impact the right to freedom of assembly and association, Article 11).
  • Potential impact on children e.g. if schools close (will impact Article 2 of the Protocol 1 Right to education; Rights of the Child).

Measures in the UK have already started to take effect as the British government announced that schools will be closed until further notice, as of 23 March 2020, "except for children of key workers and vulnerable children". Furthermore, in the Isle of Man, a self-governing UK Crown dependency, a British man was arrested and reportedly faces a 10,000 fine and 3 months in prison after allegedly failing to adhere to a local regulation which requires anyone newly arriving to the island to self-isolate for 14 days, irrespective of whether they have symptoms of the virus.

​Big Brother Watch's director Silkie Carlo said that it is right for the government to take, "rapid and robust action to protect public health", and that the country is best protected when it "holds on" to its values rather than abandons them.

​Carlo described the powers provided for in the Coronavirus Bill as the most draconian "ever proposed in peace-time Britain", which risk, "permanently rebalancing the relationship between citizens and the state".

"The Bill contains blank cheque powers to detain and test ‘potentially infectious’ members of the public and even children in unidentified isolation facilities on threat of criminal sanctions. That could be any one of us. It contains sweeping powers to shut down even political assemblies, which could thwart the possibility of public protest against this power grab in the months ahead", Carlo said.

​The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) issued a warning regarding the Coronavirus Bill, pointing out prior examples of the abuse and misuse of emergency powers in the UK and beyond.

"There are obvious examples from our work: the use of counter-terrorism to justify the classification of entirely legitimate campaigners as “extremists”, or the recent, unlawful attempt to ban climate protests in London. That is why giving the police tough new powers is always fraught with risk", Netpol warns.

​The key questions that the Joint Committee on Human Rights will address in its inquiry are:

  • What steps need to be taken to ensure that measures taken by the Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic are human rights compliant?
  • What will the impact of specific measure taken by Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic be on human rights in the UK?
  • Which groups will be disproportionately affected by measures taken by the Government to address COVID-19 pandemic?

The committee is requesting contributions from the public which it will accept until 22 July 2020. Written submissions should be no longer than 1,500 words, should address one or more of the key points investigated by the inquiry, and can be submitted via the parliamentary web portal.

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