Liberty calls on Parliament to ensure human rights are at heart of coronavirus response

Posted on 21 Apr 2020

  • Liberty questions why public health crisis is being treated as a criminal justice issue
  • New police powers have led to a heavy-handed and uneven approach across the country
  • Rights of groups already marginalised put at further risk by crisis legislation
  • Liberty, the human rights organisation, has called on parliament to ensure human rights are at the heart of the Government’s response to coronavirus as it returns from recess today.

The Coronavirus Act, which parliament passed on 25 March, dramatically reimagined our relationship with the State. While it was necessary to urgently address the coronavirus pandemic, the UK Government’s response now needs careful scrutiny with evidence to show whether these measures are necessary and proportionate.

Liberty is particularly concerned by the new policing powers and will be urging ministers to question why a public health crisis is being treated like a criminal justice issue. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is due to review some of these powers in the coming weeks, and must take into account the affect their regular misuse and heavy-handed enforcement is having on public trust in authorities.

Liberty’s policy department will be providing detailed briefings to MPs and select committees to help them ensure that human rights are at the heart of the Government’s response to coronavirus. These briefings will also be available on Liberty’s website.

Priorities for Liberty include:

  • Sweeping police powers created under the Coronavirus Act, as well as the subsequent policing regulations, need urgent review. Not only are they extremely broad, they have been repeatedly misused and this has made these powers particularly worrying for communities who are already over-policed.
  • Crucial safeguards in mental health settings and social care have been suspended, putting rights in jeopardy for people already particularly at risk from the effects of the pandemic and lockdown.
  • The Government’s hostile environment policies have left undocumented people too afraid to seek medical care in the middle of a public health emergency in case they are faced with huge bills, detention and deportation. The hostile environment must be suspended and people released from immigration detention where they are at risk of contracting the virus.
  • Proposals for even greater State surveillance as part of the coronavirus response are deeply concerning, particularly as they have been kept largely secret despite the implications for our rights. The Government has failed to show it appreciates the risks raised by projects such as the NHSX contact tracing app, and is yet to say what, if anything, it plans to do to address the dangers of exposing our deeply sensitive personal information.

Martha Spurrier, Liberty director, said “Times of crisis can create the conditions for our rights to be swept away. We are asked to compromise, to trust in the State and submit to ever greater control. It is at these times, when some sacrifice can be justified, that we must be more vigilant than ever to ensure everyone in society is protected.

“The Government has responded to the coronavirus pandemic by giving police sweeping powers resulting in some heavy-handed policing. This needs to be urgently addressed.

“Our rights are hard won but easily lost. We at Liberty look forward to working with parliamentarians to ensure our rights are protected during this crisis and safeguarded for the world that emerges once it has passed.”

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