Government must urgently address a number of issues to ensure that its handling of the coronavirus pandemic is human rights compliant, according to a House of Commons report published today.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights report, The Government's response to COVID-19: human rights implications, recognises the the Government's focus has been to protect life but raises concerns about the wider human rights implications of some of the measures adopted.
With the Government due to undertake its six-month review of the coronavirus legislation, and as it considers how to respond to the current rise in infections, the MPs say it must be able to justify the steps taken as being necessary and proportionate, and must be open and transparent about the evidence it has considered and how it has made its decision.
Decisions should be announced to Parliament first, particularly where emergency powers are being used. Whilst emergency procedures such as fast-tracked legislation and made affirmative statutory instruments may be justified in these exceptional circumstances, they must be limited to what is absolutely necessary, especially when human rights are at stake.
Their report makes recommendations on a range of headings including:
Lockdown regulations – There has been confusion over the status and interpretation of guidance, and the relationship between guidance and law in implementing lockdown regulations across the country. Separately, there are concerns about the disproportionate impact of policing decisions on young men from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Lessons must be learned in order to avoid the worst elements of confusion and disproportionality before any further lockdowns, whether at local or national level, the MPs say.
Test and trace – Concerns have been raised around privacy, data protection and discrimination in the development of a contact tracing app, and specific tailored legislation should be introduced to protect people whose data is collected.
Rights of people in detention – The committee is "deeply concerned" about the human rights of people in various types of detention. Measures taken during lockdown and beyond have breached the right to family life, and resuming visits across all settings, including prisons, hospitals and care homes "must be a priority as soon as it is safe to do so".
Access to justice – The right to a fair trial and right to liberty have been engaged by the effect on the operation of the courts. The committee welcomes the use of live link technology as a mechanism of avoiding delays to justice, but the Government "must ensure those who are digitally excluded or otherwise vulnerable are not disadvantaged and that the principle of open justice continues to apply".
School closures – The committee is concerned at the impact that school closures have had on children, particularly on the rights of those with special educational needs and disabilities.
The report calls on the Government to undertake some form of swift lessons-learned review as soon as possible in order to fulfil its human rights obligations and to prevent future unnecessary deaths, incorporating any findings into its planning and response to any further waves of infection. Further, any public inquiry must consider, at least, deaths in detention settings; deaths of healthcare and care workers and the availability of PPE; deaths in care homes due to early releases from hospitals; and deaths of transport workers, police and security guards due to inadequate PPE.
Committee chair Harriet Harman QC commented: "The scale of this crisis is unlike anything many of us will see again in our lifetime. Disruption to our normal way of life and human rights are sometimes necessary in order to lead the country through any significant emergency, but this must always be done in a way that is proportionate and justifiable in accordance with the balancing act that is protecting our human rights.
"As we approach the Coronavirus Act’s six-month review, there are a number of concerns that the Government must urgently address. Confusion over what is law and what is merely guidance has left citizens open to disproportionate and unequal levels of punishment for breaking the rules, and unfortunately, it seems that once again, this is overtly affecting BAME individuals. The Government must learn from these mistakes to ensure that any additional lockdowns do not unfairly impact specific groups.
"Several times now we have expressed our dismay over the Government’s treatment of people in detention, and once again we must impress on the Government the urgency of resuming visits as soon as possible. We cannot know how long coronavirus will impact us, but we heard how devastating being separated from one’s family can be for those in care homes, in prison and detained in mental health facilities and this cannot continue for much longer. Blanket bans on visits are not justifiable."
She added: "Parliament and the public must be kept appropriately and promptly informed about changes in policy, especially when the human rights of so many are affected in such a wide variety of ways. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time for everyone, and the Government must act in a justifiable, fair and proportionate way."