Human rights risk being forgotten in the understandable rush to protect public healthby Martha Spurrier / March 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
Coronavirus has created a public crisis on a previously unimaginable scale. Around the world, politicians are faced with the unenviable task of trying to fix societies that are breaking down. The change to our public and personal lives that this crisis demands is so dramatic that each and every one of us is affected.
The UK government has an obligation to take steps to protect people’s lives. At my campaign organisation Liberty, we understand that this will involve restrictions on individual freedoms. So it makes sense, for example, to prevent public gatherings and keep people at home for as long as it’s necessary and proportionate to do so. The PM’s statement on Monday evening included measures to this effect.
However, we’re also keenly aware that states of emergency and exception are often the moments when essential rights and liberties are hollowed out; when executive power oversteps the mark, hidden from public scrutiny by the long shadow of crisis.
And in such a fast-paced, pressured environment, when all of us are suffering a unique but connected hardship, the human rights of everyone, particularly those of us who are most at risk from abuse, are all too easily missed.
While the coronavirus is new, public health crises, pandemics and situations of national emergency are not. The UK government already has legislation at its disposal. We have the Public Health Act 1984 which gives a range of powers to a range of authorities. We have the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which, again, gives emergency powers. Why the government is seeking more powers, some that would severely limit our rights in the long term, is unknown and we are seeking urgent clarity on why we need standalone legislation in the form of the Coronavirus Bill.
This Bill would not only give the government extraordinary powers, it would enable it to enact them for an extraordinarily long time—much longer than this pandemic is expected to last. If it is reportedly the view of Public Health England that this crisis will extend to spring 2021, why then is the government giving itself powers that could last well beyond two years? Although it is being widely reported that this Bill will lapse after two years, a more detailed look reveals that there is a further clause…