A Public Health Crisis and a Crisis of Rights


Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty

20 April 2020

The coronavirus has created a public health crisis of a previously unimaginable scale – and we have all had to adapt. Across the country community groups have banded together to look after those at greatest risk, and people have shown they are willing to change the way they live in order to protect each other.

In the face of such an unprecedented challenge it is right for the Government to take appropriate action to protect lives. But history tells us that too often in times of national upheaval the go-to response is to water down our hard-won rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, our Government has upheld this legacy in recent months.

The UK’s response to the coronavirus outbreak can be split into two parts. The first is the emergency Coronavirus legislation, which contains the most significant changes outlined so far and was first debated in Parliament on 23 March to pass into law three days later. The second part came on 27 March, with the Health Protection Regulationswhich grant the police extraordinary new powers to ensure the public comply with Government guidance to stay at home.

Combined, these responses have significant implications for the way we are policed, the surveillance we are subjected to, and the way we are cared for – among many other things. And while some of the moves taken by the Government are completely reasonable and constructive, the overall approach has been to meet a public health crisis with a criminal justice response.

The emergency coronavirus legislation gives the police and other state officials sweeping new powers to detain any one of us they think may be infectious – even without a judge’s authorisation – and subject us to enforced medical testing. These powers were then bolstered by the Health Protection Regulations, meaning police can fine us and use force if we don’t comply.

Affording the authorities such power to interfere in our lives is concerning for all of us. But police powers in the UK are not applied evenly – meaning communities already over-policed are likely to bear the brunt of these new measures. We’ve already seen police going further than the broad scope of these new powers, and beyond their lawful remit. This, combined with a counter-productive lack of clarity from the Government, makes it impossible for us to know how to comply with the new rules – or stand up to abuse of power.

As well as ushering in greater powers of police detention for all of us, the emergency coronavirus legislation also lowers standards and strips out vital safeguards for anyone with health issues or people who rely on social care.

Recent years have seen a steep rise in the detention of people under the Mental Health Act. The emergency coronavirus legislation is set to make this bad situation worse by removing essential safeguards, like requiring the sign-off of two doctors before detaining someone and limiting access to detention reviews. Meanwhile vital social care safeguards have also become casualties to the emergency legislation. This means that some of the most marginalised in society will be left without support at the very moment their needs are greatest.

And while the Government’s new laws have stripped protections from some, it has missed others almost entirely. Our Government has long operated what’s known as the hostile environment, a scheme which means that if you’re a migrant you may be reluctant to access essential services like healthcare for fear your details could be handed to immigration enforcement. During a pandemic the implications of this become even more acute: leaving whole sections of society afraid to seek healthcare not only puts them at greater risk – it jeopardises the public health and safety of us all.

Ministers say everyone is entitled to free coronavirus healthcare, but while data-sharing between the Home Office and NHS Trusts continues people will remain scared to access treatment. And there’s no adequate plan for immigrants held in detention centres.

The Government has taken a punitive approach rather an inclusive, public health approach. And there’s no evidence that its wide-ranging coercive new penalties are justified to enforce public compliance. In fact, the reality that’s unfolded in the face of this crisis is that local support groups have sprouted up across UK, thousands have volunteered for NHS England, grassroots groups are rallying like never before and there’s overwhelming public support for staying at home to stay safe. What we need from the Government right now is a nurturing and protective approach – more focus on PPE for frontline workers and healthcare for marginalised communities, less on policing and surveillance.

What’s worrying is that although the new measures will be reviewed by MPs every six months, parts of the laws could remain well beyond the expected lifetime of this crisis, for two years or more. There are also questions as to why we need the new laws at all when emergency measures could have been introduced under legislation that already existed. Those measures would have been subject to greater scrutiny by Parliament and the courts, and they would have been strictly time limited.

What we do know is that overbearing measures risk undermining the public trust in frontline services which is so essential during this crisis. In such a fast-paced, pressured situation the human rights of everyone – particularly those most at risk from abuse – are too easily missed. Instead of focusing on penalising those who fail to obey, the Government should be looking to extend protections for those in greatest need.

Such enormous and overbearing legislation is a reminder of why organisations like Liberty exist. These wholesale changes to the balance of power underline the need for robust scrutiny, review, and if necessary – resistance. Now more than ever we must be vigilant to ensure human rights sit at the heart of the Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Our rights are hard won but they are easily lost.

We will make it through this crisis – but we must do so with our rights intact.

2 thoughts on “A Public Health Crisis and a Crisis of Rights

  1. Thank you for this blog clearly explaining some of the issues and worries that are raised by the present crisis concerning human rights.


  2. Pingback: HRC’s Members Response Action to COVID-19 | Human Rights centre blog

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