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Coronavirus: the effect on human rights impact in the UK

Amnesty members declaring that they are human rights defenders

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, people across the world face the devastating impact it is having now on families, friends and communities, and will continue to have long into the future. This is a human rights crisis in the most immediate sense – and a reminder of our common humanity and that we are all equal in dignity and human rights.

The international human rights system as we know it today was born from the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s and the hopes of a better future. Today, human rights are central to the situation we all face. At their heart, human rights are both a protection from the power of the state and a demand that our governments use their considerable power to protect our lives, health and wellbeing.

In the next days and weeks, we will analyse developments from a human rights perspective and publish updates. And as we do this, we will continue to scrutinise actions of governments here in the UK and elsewhere in the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

What we want to see from the government

All of us in the UK have responsibilities towards each other in this crisis, but the government has an overarching duty to protect our health and wellbeing. It can only fulfil its obligations if it puts human rights at the centre of its response.

In introducing emergency measures, it is vital from the outset that the UK Government ensures human rights are at the centre of all prevention, preparedness, containment and treatment efforts, in order to best protect public health, welfare, and support the groups and individuals most at risk from COVID-19.

The government must provide full economic support to protect people’s right to a home, to work and to an adequate standard of living. They will need to take action and extend the arms of state protection and support, perhaps more widely than ever before. 

These measures must focus first and foremost on the most vulnerable, those who are already struggling and those who are least protected.

Coronavirus Emergency Powers Bill

In these exceptional circumstances and the public health emergency, the government is introducing emergency powers. This must be done with care to protect and respect our human rights. These measures must be temporary, be subject to regular scrutiny. and undergo genuine review before any extension. The provisions in the Bill must be proportionate and any derogations of human rights must be in accord with international human rights law.

Who are those most at risk from Coronavirus?

The virus doesn’t discriminate, although we do know that certain groups appear to be at greater risk of severe illness and death. According to the WHO, older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease) seem to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with coronavirus.

People living in poverty and homelessness will find it much harder to access preventive measures. They may be working on zero-hour contracts, reliant on benefits and subject to punitive measures under the system of Universal Credit. 

We have seen how, in countries which have already been in lockdown, refuges and women’s organisations have been raising awareness of what self-isolation means for women living with violent and controlling partners. In the UK organisations working on domestic violence are chronically underfunded and, to date, no additional provision has been made to cope with the impact of coronavirus. Victims with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ face additional barriers and insecurity as they cannot access life-saving refuges and are barred from other forms of public support. 

A shortage of care services (childcare, healthcare, elderly care) will have a disproportionate impact on women as providers of unpaid care work. Coronavirus will exacerbate a situation where cuts to public spending have already fallen on women. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has reiterated its previous concern (dating back to 2009) about the disproportionately negative impact of austerity measures on women, who constitute the vast majority of single parents and are more likely to be engaged in informal, temporary or precarious forms of employment.

How should the rights of the most vulnerable be protected?

We know that there are real challenges in the UK and Coronavirus is bringing these into sharp focus. In 2018, Professor Philip Alston – UN expert on extreme poverty and human rights – visited the UK and reported how 14 million people are living in poverty, dependent on food banks and charities for their next meal. He documented the plight of homeless people, some of whom don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep. Underpinning this he highlighted how successive governments eroded the healthcare system and undermined the social security safety net. In this context, we welcome the government’s commitment to food vouchers for children who get free school meals, and to keep schools open for frontline workers and vulnerable children.

Amnesty International and its partners have previously reported poor treatment of undocumented and irregular migrant people and their exclusion from services such as healthcare. This has been a feature of policy over successive governments and many years, whether by barring people from such services, making them unaffordable, or deterring their use by threat of being reported to immigration enforcement.  

The pandemic intensifies the risks these measures present to many already vulnerable people and the wider public. It is vital that their impact is urgently assessed and mitigated by the UK Government to ensure individual and public health. There should be no barrier to health care at this time.

How we’re coming together

While we see the stories of incidents of racism – acts driven by fear and ignorance – we also see how communities come together to support one another, through individual and collective acts of kindness, whether looking out for elderly neighbours or mass applause to demonstrate their appreciation to health workers. We’re proud that Amnesty International groups and activists are playing their part, offering support to those most in need in their communities.

What must be done next

We welcome measures including mortgage relief and support for businesses – but have been concerned by the significant gaps and questions that remained, including for those that are renting their homes. We are therefore pleased that the Prime Minister has announced he will act to protect renters from eviction. However, there’s no commitment to supporting those working on precarious contracts, often without sick pay or safety net and this need to be urgently addressed. So, while there is much to be welcomed, there is clearly a lot more that needs to be done and it is now vital that the government give equal focus to supporting those most vulnerable.  

The UK will survive the COVID-19 outbreak, not least thanks to the front-line services that put their lives on the line to deliver our right to health. But more than ever before, we need the government to do more to protect those who are already highly vulnerable, as well as those who may become so in the weeks and months ahead.