UK: Coronavirus bill must put human rights at centre of response - new briefing

'These are extraordinary times, which require extraordinary measures' - Kate Allen

UK Parliament today will debate the emergency Coronavirus Bill 

Amnesty is calling on the Government to ensure human rights are at the centre of all efforts

'These are extraordinary times, which require extraordinary measures' - Kate Allen

UK Parliament today will debate the emergency Coronavirus Bill which sets out measures to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Bill, which will be reviewed every six months, will provide statutory sick pay for employees, allow police to detain and hold people they believe could be potentially infectious, restrict public events and gatherings and impose travel restrictions during the crisis.

In a briefing issued today [23 March], Amnesty International UK is calling on the Government to ensure 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.

Kate Allen, Amnesty UK’s Director, said:

“These are extraordinary times, which require extraordinary measures. It is right the Government takes necessary and proportionate measures to prevent, treat and control the coronavirus, and human rights must be at the centre of its response.

“That means not only taking appropriate steps to protect us all, but also ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable receive particular attention.

“As it stands, the needs of some of those 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.

“This Bill contains broad, serious and far-reaching powers. We welcome the Government’s reported acceptance that they 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 Amnesty will scrutinise their usage to ensure that human rights are at the forefront of this response, and not a casualty of this crisis.”

Amnesty International UK Coronavirus Bill 2019-2021 briefing

Limits to extraordinary powers

As originally drafted, this Bill provides a dramatic extension of the powers of government to reach into the lives of the population, and provided that for two years. That raised serious questions about necessity and proportionality of the measures as a whole - individually and collectively. The burden of justifying such restrictions lies with the government, and all such justifications must be subject to periodic review to ensure human rights compliance.

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 the 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:

  • 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
  • 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 health care 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.

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 the 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 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 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.

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