In less than a month, daily life has changed beyond recognition and every part of our society has been affected by the coronavirus crisis. But people are wrong when they say the virus is a great leveller. We don’t live in an equal world and the impact of the pandemic will be felt unequally.
For all of us working in social justice and human rights, that’s not news. At Liberty right now we’re seeing a magnification of the issues we tackle every day; over-policing of communities, stepping up of surveillance, mining of personal data, lax safeguarding for those most at risk of rights abuses, migrants blamed, forgotten or ignored, prisoners put at risk – familiar prejudices and routine abuses of power exaggerated during the crisis.
History tells us that too often in times of national upheaval the go-to response is to water down our hard-won rights and freedoms and so this has come to pass. The UK’s response to the coronavirus outbreak can be split into two parts. The first is the emergency coronavirus legislation, which contains draconian coercive powers and strips away vital social care standards. It was debated in parliament on 23 March and passed into law two days later. The second part came on 26 March, with the health protection regulations, which grant the police extraordinary new powers to ensure the public comply with government guidance to stay at home.
Combined, these responses have significant implications for the way we are policed, the surveillance we are subjected to, and the way we are (not) cared for – among many other things. While extraordinary times demand extraordinary change, the government approach has been to meet a public health crisis with a criminal justice response. This will have long-term implications for the nature of our relationship with the state and normalises the use of authoritarian powers. Now is the time for a nurturing, caring state – the kind of state that equips medical staff with PPE and makes a long-term commitment to creating a better social safety net. Instead we have the punitive state, reaching for coercion and control.
Affording authorities such power to interfere in our lives is concerning for all of us. But police powers in the UK are not applied evenly – meaning communities already over-policed will bear the brunt of these new measures. We’ve already seen police going further than the broad scope of these new powers, and beyond their lawful remit. It’s breaking news at the moment because it affects people who don’t normally feel the sharp end of unlawful policing. But for many (police lawyers included), this is exactly how policing is experienced every day.
On top of the introduction of greater powers of police detention for all of us, the emergency legislation lowers standards and cancels vital safeguards for those of us who have mental health issues or rely on social care. Recent years have seen a steep rise in the detention of people under the Mental Health Act. The emergency legislation is set to make this bad situation worse by removing essential safeguards, like requiring the sign-off of two doctors before detaining someone, and restricting access to review. Meanwhile, vital social care safeguards have become casualties to the emergency legislation, meaning that obligations on local authorities to support carers and ensure our basic needs are met are suspended in all but the most extreme circumstances. This means that some of the most marginalised and vulnerable among us will be left without support at the very moment their needs are greatest.
And while the government’s new laws have stripped protections from some, it has missed others almost entirely. It has long operated what’s known as the hostile environment, a scheme which means that if you’re a migrant you may be reluctant to access essential services like healthcare for fear your details will be handed to immigration enforcement. Ministers say everyone is entitled to free coronavirus healthcare, but while data-sharing between the Home Office and NHS trusts continues, people will remain scared to access treatment. And there’s no adequate plan for immigrants held in detention centres, just like the strategy for protecting prisoners has been a woeful afterthought.
Outside of government, the reality that’s unfolded in the face of this crisis is that local support groups have sprouted up across the UK, thousands have volunteered for NHS England, grassroots groups are rallying like never before and there’s overwhelming public support for staying at home to stay safe. Given the public response, the government has yet to demonstrate that its wide-ranging new penalties are justified to enforce compliance – or to answer concerns over the length of time these powers can stay in place. Although the new measures will be reviewed by MPs every six months, parts of the legislation could remain well beyond the expected lifetime of this crisis, for two years or more.
There are also questions as to why we need the new laws at all when emergency measures could have been introduced under legislation that already existed. Those measures would have been subject to greater scrutiny by parliament and the courts, and they would have been strictly time-limited.
What we do know is that overbearing measures risk undermining the public trust in front-line services, which is so essential during this crisis. In such a fast-paced, pressured situation, the human rights of everyone – particularly those most at risk from abuse – are too easily missed. Instead of focusing on penalising those who fail to obey, the government should be looking to extend protections for those in greatest need.
Such enormous and overbearing legislation is a reminder of why organisations like Liberty exist. These wholesale changes to the balance of power underline the need for robust scrutiny, review and – if necessary – resistance. Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant to ensure human rights sit at the heart of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
We will make it through this crisis – but we must do so with our rights intact.