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Coronavirus and civil rights

Coronavirus and civil rights

Categories: Latest News

Thursday April 16 2020

The world is facing a health crisis that few have seen for over a century since that of the Spanish Flu of 1918. In March, in response to the pandemic, the Government enacted emergency legislation to deal with the impact of the current coronavirus crisis.

While there is no doubt that the Coronavirus Act contains vital provisions to bolster our country’s ability to fight the threat of COVID19, there are nonetheless certain aspects which raise concerns regarding the conflict between the Act and the preservation of human rights and civil liberties.

It is imperative that the Government assures its citizens that their fundamental human rights and civil liberties will not be derogated from, nor dismissed. Indeed, as the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reminded states when this pandemic broke, emergency measures to this crisis should not be abused to suppress human rights.

History has shown that derogating from civil rights and liberties in the midst of the crisis has catastrophic consequences. As an extreme example, Hitler issued the 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree following the crisis of the same name. The suspension of civil liberties as a result of the fire was observed to have led to the inexorable destruction of German democracy and paved the path for tyranny and dictatorship.

Whilst it can’t be suggested the UK is headed down the same doomed path, there are lessons that must be learned about the consequences of suppressing civil liberties. Communities across the world rely heavily on their civil liberties as a means of protection against oppression by the state and individuals. Therefore, any erosion of human rights and civil liberties must be met with caution and a full understanding of the lasting impacts.

The Coronavirus Act affords police extraordinary powers which have the potential to lead to gross abuse and/or a neglect of human rights. The Act contains provisions for police, immigration officers, and public health officials to arrest people deemed infectious, and consequently place them in isolation and sent to be tested, or else face a fine of up to £1,000. As noted by Liberty, this has the potential to infringe on a person’s right to liberty under Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The Government already has a history of attracting criticism for its policies surrounding the detention of civilians particularly in the area of immigration. In January 2018, the Home Affairs Select Committee criticised the Government’s exceedingly error-prone method of attempting to marginalise suspected illegal immigrants, with 10% of all those flagged as suspects being incorrect and representing the targeting of legal citizens. Furthermore, a report by Refugee Rights Europe in February 2018, entitled ‘A hostile environment: documenting the living situation for asylum seekers in London’, documented how asylum seekers were being placed in dilapidated, hazardous, and unhygienic living conditions. Meanwhile, also in February 2018, a number of Home Office whistleblowers claimed that the British asylum process was a “lottery”, and that colleagues sometimes had an “abusive attitude” towards applicants, frequently used “intimidation tactics” during interviews, and that “there are some incidents where people have been refused where they should have been granted [asylum]”.

The manner in which powers of detention have been exercised in the past is a matter of concern. This fact, combined with how a “potentially infectious” person is very loosely defined, serves to provide little reassurance to minority communities who are very often disproportionately on the receiving end of similar powers.

The Coronavirus Act has also permitted for biological samples to be forcibly taken from people by the relevant authorities. For an example of how damaging such a power can be, we can look at the collection of such data under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The Schedule 7 powers enable DNA to be taken from someone who has not been arrested, or even suspected of having committed any offence. This was held by the European Court of Human Rights, in the 2019 case of Beghal v The United Kingdom, to violate a person’s right to respect for their “private and family life” under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The power to take the DNA, fingerprints, and other biological data of an individual under the new powers bestowed upon authorities under the Act – regardless of outcome – and then potentially store them on the same database as convicted terrorists and criminals, could undoubtedly lead to data on many innocent individuals being collected and retained in a manner which could compromise their human rights.

In these testing times, public health and safety are rightly the paramount and overriding concern. However, it is also imperative that we commit to standing by the principles and values which define our nation and which ensure the freedom and safety of every citizen.


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