Liberty calls for continuous scrutiny of Coronavirus Bill
Posted on 19 Mar 2020
Continuous scrutiny is necessary to make sure those of us most at risk of rights abuses don’t suffer further.
- New law gives new powers of detention affecting all UK citizens
- Migrants and prisoners missed from Government COVID-19 plans
- Lower care standards but mental health patients may be held longer
Liberty is calling for regular and tighter scrutiny of dramatic changes to civil liberties as part of the Government’s response to COVID-19.
Analysis of the Bill shows that Government is prioritising punitive measures in its response to the public health crisis, and that these could remain in place for two years.
Liberty’s legal experts have identified key aspects in the sweeping changes that could not only affect individuals in the short term but could impact our rights beyond this pandemic if left unchecked.
For this reason, Liberty is calling for tighter, regular scrutiny of these powers throughout the COVID-19 crisis and for there to be a clear and well-communicated sunset clause on this legislation.
Liberty is also asking for the powers to be restricted and to only be used when necessary and in a measured, proportionate way.
The human rights organisation is also calling for Government to disclose if some of these powers have already been used so there is total transparency.
There are also questions as to why this legislation is needed at all, given that similar measures could be introduced via the Civil Contingencies Act and other, even older legislation dating back to the 1980s.
CHIEF CONCERNS WITH THE NEW LEGISLATION ARE:
- GREATER SURVEILLANCE could be ushered in through the backdoor, and this may have already happened. The emergency legislation may increase State capacity to issue warrants to access our personal information and data for state surveillance.
This includes intercepting digital communication, hacking into our computers and phones giving access to some of our most personal and sensitive data such as our religion, our sexual orientation, political views and medical history.
- GREATER POWERS OF DETENTION that affect all of us, but with a particularly heavy impact on those of us with in contact with mental health services. Important safeguards that protect mental health patients are effectively removed by this legislation. It would mean that only one doctor, rather than two, is needed to enforce the detention of someone if they’re thought to be a danger to themselves or others.
Patients could also be kept in mental health detention for an indefinite period. This is a massive infringement on their individual liberty and will have a dramatic impact on their well-being and any increase in patient numbers will put more pressure on stretched NHS staff.
The Emergency Bill also gives police and immigration officials the power to detain us if they suspect we’re infected. How police make that call is one that will need careful monitoring to ensure this power is not being used in a discriminatory way.
What the Bill fails to make clear is how people who are already detained, whether in prison or in immigration detention centres, are being protected from the pandemic.
- LOWERING OR REMOVING CARE STANDARDS. While the NHS core duty of care is not affected, how it prioritises patients will change under this legislation. This will affect those of us who are most at risk including older people, disabled people and those requiring hands-on care. Vital care assessments that some of us need may not take place and that could see standards drop. This measure is introduced to allow the health and social care system to shift it priorities. However, those of us who are deemed low risk could, without a good standard of care, escalate into high risk cases, putting further pressure on the system.
- MASS REMOVAL OF THE RIGHT TO ASSEMBLE. While this is a sensible step in stopping the spread of COVID-19, the breadth and looseness of the wordings means that it could be used beyond the end of the pandemic. Liberty will be watching closely to see that this power is only used when it’s serving an explicit and evidenced aim.
- REMOVAL OF CHECKS. Under the new Bill, inquests into coronavirus deaths can take place without juries. While this is sensible step for logistical reasons in the immediate term, the lessons that will need to be learned from the UK’s response to this pandemic should be scrutinised through full and fearless independent investigation by coroners.
- SIGNIFICANT OMISSIONS. The emergency legislation has some significant gaps, including failing to address the threat to health posed by the hostile environment. Liberty, along with others, called on Government last week to immediately suspend the hostile environment by dropping NHS charging and stopping data sharing between the NHS Trusts and immigration enforcement. Both measures prevent migrants from accessing healthcare, putting not only their health at risk but possibly heightening risks to public health in the middle of a pandemic.
The legislation also does nothing to address what will happen to people who are already detained, either in prison or in immigration detention centres, and how they will be protected from the virus or what provisions will be made so they can access care.
Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty said: ‘While change is absolutely necessary, and some of the measures outlined in this Bill are entirely sensible, others are overbearing and, if left unchecked, could create more problems than they solve.
“This is why it is vital that these powers are scrutinized, not only now but throughout this public health crisis. We must also have a clear and well-communicated sunset clause so we know where we stand. It’s more important than ever that we remain vigilant because the impact of this Bill will be felt most by those already at risk of rights abuses.
“We’re also concerned that this Bill sets a dangerous precedent and it’s disappointing that at a time of public health crisis the go-to response of this Government is to hollow out human rights and to adopt a disciplinary approach.
“While the challenges that COVID-19 present are significant and we need to adapt, the checks and balances that keep us safe must remain intact. Crisis must be responded to, but we cannot allow it to tear a hole in the fabric of our human rights framework or destroy our social safety net.”
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