UK: Government's coronavirus Bill explained

Houses of Parliament
The UK government's coronavirus Bill explained

These are extraordinary times, which requires extraordinary measures.

The emergency Coronavirus Bill is the Government's response to tackling the COVID-19 outbreak. In short it will:

  • provide statutory sick pay for employees,
  • allow police to detain and hold people they think could be infectious,
  • restrict public events and gatherings, and
  • impose travel restrictions.

These are extraordinary times – and we understand that it will take extraordinary measures to bring our live back to normal. 

That's why we've been fighting to make sure human rights are at the heart of all the changes the Government is making. 

Our humanity-centred response to the Coronavirus pandemic

The most vulnerable must be put first.

Currently, some groups are under-served by this Bill.

The Government must do more – including providing guidance and support for those at risk of harm in the home, and ensuring everyone is able to access social security regardless of their employment or immigration status.

Broad, serious and far-reaching powers

We welcome the Government’s reported acceptance that these new laws will require regular review and renewal by Parliament, and urge that it be further amended to include a clear statement that the use of these powers must always remain necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory.

Over the coming weeks and months we will scrutinise their usage to ensure that human rights are at the forefront of this response, and not a casualty of this crisis.

The UK Coronavirus Bill explained

Two years is too long

This Bill dramatically extends the government's's ability to reach into and change our day-to-day lives. 

It's raised serious questions about the necessity and proportionality of these measures as a whole – both at an individual level and collectively; hence, any changes should be periodically reviewed to ensure they still have our best interests at heart.

Amnesty welcomes reports of the introduction of a proper sunset clause. A clause requiring six monthly review and renewal, to be informed by expert evidence of the continuing public health situation, is an important safeguard.

Amnesty is urging the Government to also:

  • Introduce a section in the Bill which clearly states all powers contained within it should be exercised in accordance with the principles of necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination, compatibly with international human rights law; Introduce a duty on the relevant Ministers to provide a statement of detailed, robust reasons for the exercise of the powers within where they impact on human rights.

Powers to detain potentially infected persons

In its current form, the Bill gives various powers to public health officers, constables and immigration officers to detain and hold people they believe could be potentially infectious. Constables and immigration officers are also empowered to use reasonable force to implement the lawful use of these powers.

These are broad, serious and potentially invasive powers and the use of such powers must be governed by strict necessity and proportionality tests.

Amnesty is particularly concerned about impact these powers could have on vulnerable people, including people living in abusive or otherwise dangerous domestic environments or people living with precarious immigration statuses, in need of further support.

Amnesty is calling on the Government to introduce a clause which clearly states all powers under this schedule should be exercised in accordance with the principles of necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination, compatibly with international human rights law.

Restrictions on events and gatherings

Sweeping measures introduced in the Bill would permit the Secretary of State to prohibit or impose requirements on holding events or gatherings. This includes imposing restrictions on entering into or departing from and closing premises altogether. Failure to comply could lead to fines.

Amnesty believes it is important to ensure that these powers, while inevitably interfering with fundamental rights - including those of freedom of assembly, and potentially the right to private and family life – only do so in a way which accords with the requirements of international human rights law, being exercised in a manner which is necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory

Use of military in front line policing

It is accepted that under pre-existing emergency powers, police capacity can be increased by using the military to support police functions. However, those functions have been expanded greatly under this Bill, and military personnel might conceivably be called upon to support front line police activity. Amnesty is calling on the Government to ensure that military personnel are bound by the same set of independent professional standards and procedures that apply to other full-time police officers, and that specific guidance and protocols are developed on these points.

Immigration powers

A significant omission in the Bill is any provision for mitigating the impact of the immigration system on the country’s response to the coronavirus.

Amnesty is urging the Government to:

  • ensure that the fear of data-sharing with the Home Office does not deter anyone who needs to access health services or other public services to maintain their or their family members’ health and wellbeing at this time, such as by suspending data-sharing for immigration purposes.
     
  • ensure that people are able to access vital healthcare and other public services, and access accommodation and the means to support themselves and their family members. This could be granted by individual or general grants of leave to remain, the removal of conditions on leave to enter or remain or measures to remove statutory barriers to access.
     
  • end or restrict the use of immigration detention to ensure that nobody held or working in the detention estate is put at undue risk, and to end any use of immigration detention where this cannot achieve any purpose for which it is authorised at this time.

Domestic violence and abuse

The current Bill does not provide measures to respond to a very likely increase in domestic abuse and violence as more and more people go into self-isolation during the pandemic. Emerging evidence from China is that police reports for domestic violence tripled during lockdown period. In Italy the national network of refuges has seen calls to its helpline decrease because women do not feel safe calling while housebound with an abusive partner.

Amnesty supports the recommendations put forward by the Violence Against Women sector.

Social Security and Worker’s Rights

Several measures have been introduced by the UK Government, or powers contained within the Bill, with the aim of protecting public health – such as travel restrictions, quarantines, limitations on public gatherings – which, however appropriate, could adversely impact people’s rights to and at work, with those in insecure forms of labour being disproportionately affected.

This includes migrant workers, people in insecure employment including in the “gig” economy, people on lower incomes, irregular migrants and people working in the informal sector. Workers in these sectors often do not get adequate, or any, social security benefits, meaning they lose wages when they are quarantined and have no sick pay. They may also face additional challenges in accessing testing and treatment when they fall ill.

The UK Government should ensure that all people have access to social security – including sick pay, health care and parental leave – when they are unable to work because of the COVID-19 epidemic. This includes, for instance, if they are sick, or quarantined, or caring for children because of school closures.