Why human rights must be at the heart of the Covid-19 Inquiry

Posted on 05 Apr 2022

While many will want to leave behind the pandemic, a time of pain and mourning, in the coming months, an inquiry is being launched into the Government’s response.

At Liberty we believe that rather than wait for an inquiry, those in power should always be keen to hear from civil society, especially in times of crisis, to make urgent course corrections.

It’s why, throughout the pandemic, Liberty highlighted how the Government’s pandemic response was failing people in the most need and laying bare the structural inequalities that exist within our society.

This was always going to be the case when the Government’s response was centred around punishing people for being in a pandemic, instead of providing them with care and protection.

It did not need to be this way.

Protect Everyone

In fact, we worked with 19 different expert organisations to show an alternative way was possible – our ‘Protect Everyone’ Bill.

This showcased what a human rights-centred response to the pandemic could have looked like.

Many of the most draconian restrictions and laws that the Government opted for in their ‘pandemic punishment’ approach – such as the Coronavirus Act – have now been expired.

We now have the opportunity to tell Baroness Hallett, who is leading the Covid-19 Inquiry, what we think her inquiry should look at.

Covid Inquiry

It’s good to see mention of lots of the issues we campaigned on in the draft terms of reference for this inquiry.

We can see housing and homelessness, prisons and other places of detention, the justice system, immigration and asylum, and the impact of Government interventions such as benefits and sick pay, and support for people at the margins of society.

However, there are three significant areas not mentioned in the draft terms of reference that must be considered.

No mention of human rights

There is no explicit mention of human rights, no mention of the policing of the pandemic, nor any consideration of the quality of law-making, democratic scrutiny, and executive accountability during the pandemic.

Worryingly, human rights are not mentioned in the draft terms of reference – despite the fact that human rights should have been at the very heart of the response.

It is important that the Inquiry considers how well public bodies complied with their human rights obligations. A rights-based approach provides a framework to assess decision-making and interventions in terms of proportionality and necessity.

The Inquiry must consider the impact on privacy rights and data protection, disability rights and the right to education among other areas.

There was also well-documented racial disparities in who was impacted by the pandemic and the pandemic response – including this report from Liberty Investigates.

Criminal justice approach

The Inquiry also needs to consider the implications of the Government’s decision to opt for a criminal justice approach to the pandemic.

We saw the use of inconsistently applied fines with no uniform right of appeal, and it is important that Baroness Hallett’s Inquiry considers the ways that such an enforcement-led approach exacerbated existing inequalities.

It is important to look at the increased use of stop and search during lockdown and the policing of protest.

Government accountability

Finally, the Inquiry should also take into account the impact of the pandemic on the quality of law-making, democratic scrutiny, and executive accountability.

The incredibly powerful Coronavirus Act 2020 was passed in a single day, and we saw many regulations being made and changed at late notice with little to no scrutiny from our elected lawmakers and inconsistent use of guidance and advice.

It is vital the inquiry looks at how this trend played a role in undermining effective communication and transparency of the Government’s response.

Human rights, policing, and government accountability are central themes that this Covid-19 Inquiry must examine. This is important so that we can learn from how the Government responded to this emergency for future ones.

However, these themes are also important for us to consider when faced with a Government bringing forward legislation that diminishes human rights, turbo charges police powers and erodes accountability of Government.

Whether it is the Policing Bill, the Elections Bill, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the moves to overhaul the Human Rights Act or the response to Covid-19, these three areas are central to understanding the threat we are faced with.

Civil liberty organisations like ours always warn of crisis being fertile ground for stripping away rights, and so it is proving.

This Inquiry must be clear-eyed in its assessment of what was lost during the pandemic so we can understand what we may yet lose in the long-term.

More police powers, fewer human rights and limited Government accountability does not feel like ‘building back better’. It feels like a government heady with power, using the cover of crisis to make itself untouchable.

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