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COVID-19: UK Government inaction raises serious human rights concerns

By Graeme Laurie

While draconian government action such as this week’s lockdown raises important concerns, the bigger question must be: what are the human rights implications of the UK government’s serial inaction in the face of the COVID-19 crisis?

As deaths related to COVID-19 surpass 50,000 in the UK, it has become depressingly clear that the country has been behind the curve from the very early days of the pandemic. As infections tore through Europe, our government was given a grace period where important lessons could have been learned from our neighbours. Its arrogance meant that it neither learned those lessons, nor acted on them.

Despite early warnings, the UK declined to join a European scheme to source personal protective equipment (PPE). In February and March, the government’s focus on leaving the European Union led it to missing eight meetings with EU heads of state and health ministers. This, in turn, led to a missed deadline to participate in a common purchase scheme for critical health supplies. This would prove to be a serious error, creating shortages of critical resources for frontline health workers.

In early-to-mid March, Italy, France, and Spain went into lockdown while our government sat on its hands in an extraordinary act of national harm.

Two days after Greece shut its schools, Boris Johnson attended a Six Nations Rugby match with 82,000 closely-packed spectators. As Ireland cancelled its St Patrick’s day parade on the 9th of March, the UK government allowed the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead, with crowds of over 250,000 people. When the WHO declared a pandemic on the 11th of March, and Madrid closed its schools as it became the epicentre of Spain crisis, the UK welcomed 3,000 Atlético Madrid in Liverpool.

Its inertia and inaction also extended to its wilful neglect of older people in residential care, who were discharged from hospitals to care homes without access to tests. This proved catastrophic, as infected elderly patients spread the virus into care homes, leading to further mass casualties across the country.

Serial inactions such as these have contributed to the UK having one of the highest per capita death rates in the world. Minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) from the 21st of September recommended immediate action – “a circuit-breaker (short period of lockdown) to return incidence to low levels”. After an interval of almost seven weeks, England eventually entered a lockdown that will last at least one month. Delay is heaped upon delay. All of this has serious consequences for human rights, as I and my colleagues recently discussed in the journal Asian Bioethics Review.

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to everyone. They operate at international, European, and domestic levels. Additionally, in times of emergency, the UN Siracusa Principles provide an important benchmark for assessing states’ actions and to guard against violations of human rights in the name of addressing a crisis. Against all of these measures, there are numerous ways in which UK Government inaction raises profound human rights concerns.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provides that “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law”. This extends to a positive obligation to protect lives. In the context of COVID-19, inaction led to a failure to provide the PPE to healthcare staff, discharging potentially infected older people into care homes, avoiding lockdown until weeks after positive action had been taken by our neighbours, and allowing the number of cases to reach such high levels by abandoning widespread test-and-trace. All of these inactions have strong implications for UK citizens’ right to life.

Other human rights are also affected. Article 5 ECHR protects liberty, Article 8 requires respect for private and family life, and Article 11 protects the right to freedom of assembly and association with others. While none of these rights is without exceptions – that is, a state can act to restrict rights in times of public health emergencies – the ineptitude of management of COVID-19 in the UK is likely to mean that liberty, assembly, and private lives will continue to be encroached upon in a protracted and prolonged cycle of lockdown and misery. This sustained governmental interference becomes an unwarranted intrusion on citizens’ lives, and is something that people across many parts of the UK will be living with during the next few weeks and months.

As a reply to these charges, the UK Government might point to the legislative measures that have been introduced, stemming from the Coronavirus Act 2020. But these have suffered from a woeful lack of time for robust parliamentary scrutiny and must also be judged by the Siracusa Principles, which set standards that any restrictions to human rights must meet. These require, among other things, that any measures should be the least intrusive and restrictive to achieve the public health objective, be of limited duration, based on scientific evidence, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory. On this last point, it has become all too apparent that lockdown measures have disproportionately adverse impacts on poorer communities and Black, Asian and minority ethnic citizens. The UK legal framework simply enables ongoing intrusion.

People in the UK have been harmed by government inertia. This harm could have been avoided through a number of different, positive strategies – as seen in other countries. Instead, our government has rolled over and let the virus take charge. The human rights consequences of its inactions are severe. To show due respect for these rights in the future, the UK Government has some hard lessons to learn. First amongst these is that, when dealing with COVID-19, inaction has to take the backseat it deserves.

Graeme Laurie is Professorial Fellow in the School of Law, University of Edinburgh

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