Human rights

The need to respect human rights during COVID-19

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson must ensure the UK's compliance with all human rights (image by EU2017EE Estonian President via Flickr).

Professor of Human Rights, Steven Greer, discusses the human rights issues animated by the current COVID-19 pandemic with Sara Chessa.

IN THE UNITED KINGDOM (UK), where most of the population welcomed the general quarantine as a useful, temporary tool to tackle the health emergency, bureaucratic processes are designed to prevent abuses of fundamental rights even during an emergency like the current one. 

Health is a core human right that takes priority, under the current emergency.

This is the heart of the reasoning of Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Bristol:

Since the health crisis is so severe there are quite significant restrictions on all of our human rights, like freedom of association and freedom of movement. These are tolerable, in the current circumstances. In other words, the normal human rights that we expect at times when there’s no such health emergency should be restricted if that’s necessary to deal with an emergency.

In his opinion, there can be little doubt that this is true with respect to the anti-coronavirus measures introduced in the UK, especially if they were required by the best scientific advice, which Greer sees no reason to question.

As the UK Government specified from the beginning on its website, the measures in the Coronavirus Act 2020 are temporary.

While the human rights organisations understand the necessity of containing the spread of the virus, they also committed to monitoring the action of the Government and stressed the need to focus on the categories of people who are already at risk even in normal conditions.

Amnesty UK’s Director Kate Allen stated:

“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.” 

Allen's opinion is quite in tune with Professor Greer’s. According to Professor Greer, everybody’s human rights are affected in a crisis like this. But some people are touched more severely than others. The trouble is, there’s no perfect human rights solution.

He conceded:

“Even in normal times, there are all kinds of compromises to be struck between human rights, and people may debate whether the balance has been struck in the right place or not.”

By closing workplaces, the UK Government also undertook to cover the salary costs and other expenses related to the lockdown. This makes the Professor think that the way it has reacted is broadly appropriate. At the same time, he admits he is not sure the measures are going to be adequate for that segment of the population who relies upon charity.

“There’s a big debate in this country about the adequacy of the benefits system for those kinds of people anyway and I suppose this crisis just makes that more acute,” Greer said.

In fact, the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable social groups has been constant in UK public debate. Despite coronavirus being defined as a “great leveller” by many politicians, figures show that some communities are suffering more than others. 

In particular, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds appear to have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus. Even if they only represent the 14% of the UK population, their members affected by coronavirus account for 35% of the patients in intensive care.

On 16 April, Rachel Logan, Amnesty UK's Law and Human Rights Programme Director, welcomed the decision of the UK Government to launch an enquiry.

She said:

'This review needs to be independent, transparent, thorough and most importantly it needs to engage with the communities and individuals affected.'

In the meantime, another instance of inequality has become clear: between the deprived and richest areas. People living in the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas. This has been revealed by an Office for National Statistics report focused on the period between 1 March and 17 April, 2020.

Even in normal conditions, the human rights to various social protections, to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being are still unlikely to be easily enjoyed by groups like immigrants, asylum seekers, the homeless and others.

Professor Greer told IA: 

In a developed Western society where there is no crisis, there will be all kinds of people who are vulnerable for all kinds of reasons. And when you’ve got a crisis, those vulnerabilities tend to be accentuated. In other words, crises tend to impact much more upon the vulnerable than people who are not vulnerable.

A possible crucial “move” in this direction has been made on 3 May, when the Housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced a £76 million package to support groups more at risk during the coronavirus lockdown, including children experiencing dangerous situations, rough sleepers and victims of domestic and sexual violence, who will get 'priority need status' for local housing. Besides this, the allocated resources would keep charity helplines funded and to recruit counsellors for the victims of abuses.

The future will enable us to see if the system is effectively responding. But what Professor Greer highlights about the reaction to the crisis is the prompt commitment shown by civil society.

He said:

One of the heartening features of this crisis is the way in which people have resorted to what you might call community-oriented self-help. I live in Bristol and in our streets, some people have gone around putting little notes through the door saying they’re organising volunteers to help and you can contact them on the email or on a mobile phone. So people are looking out for one another, that’s a good thing too, I think.

However, there are social groups which won’t have experience community support: namely those in prison. “Quite a few people, myself included, think that we imprison too many people in this country. That our prisons are overloaded, overcrowded and we should imprison only the most serious offenders,” the Professor said.

According to Greer, the fact that a person is imprisoned in itself means their human rights are restricted. There are all kinds of knock-on effects on other human rights, including the right to health. “As far as prisoners are concerned, the main responsibility of the authorities is to do their best to ensure that the rest of their rights are as well-protected as possible,” he said.

However, prisons are not the easiest environment to safeguard persons within.

Professor Greer suggested:

Trying to maintain the two-metre distance, for example, is obviously going to be very difficult in an overcrowded prison. Hastening the release of those whose sentences would have been served soon anyway is a good idea. The question then becomes: how far off expected release should this be?

It is surprising the velocity with which the UK Government prepared the 348-page Coronavirus Bill 2020 (now an Act of Parliament) in just a few days.

Professor Greer offered his take on that:

The reason why they were able to get it through so quickly is because successive governments have had drafts ready for this kind of thing, to get prepared for pandemics. It just takes a little bit of tweaking, as it were, to deal with this current one. So the human rights issues and all the other ones have been settled quite some time ago.

And, when they were discussed, how did it happen? Professor Greer summarised the UK ordinary process to verify the human rights compliance of the legislation, recognised by most commentators as one of the most effective achievements of the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force in the year 2000.

"Since that moment we have had very effective bureaucratic processes for this, both official and unofficial,” Greer said. “The draft legislation doesn’t even get presented for parliament unless the government has considered its human rights implications.”

The Tower Bridge in London, England (image via Pixabay).

Then there is a second step, Professor Greer explained:

When a minister presents legislation to parliament, he or she has to declare that it’s compatible with human rights, or to invite parliament to pass it anyway and that very rarely happens.


Then, it goes through the parliamentary process and there’s an institution called the Joint Committee on Human Rights, made of MPs and Lords that scrutinise all legislation to see if they also think it’s compliant with the European Convention. And then you’ve got all the NGOs, they also examine and take a view upon legislation and its human rights compliance.

It doesn’t mean that pieces of legislation aren't passed even if they may conflict with human rights. People can take very different positions on about whether the right balance has been struck. This is where the courts become relevant.

Greer states, further: 

If parliament passes a piece of legislation and there’s been some controversy about it, complainants can still take litigation to the courts. The higher courts can declare a piece of legislation incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights and then it gets sent back to Parliament to be corrected, and in most cases parliament does correct it.

This highlights how the UK is still embedded in a European context regarding fundamental rights. And this is because the main human rights machinery in Europe doesn’t come from the European Union, it comes from the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, a 47-member organisation hosting the European Court of Human Rights.

Leaving the European Union didn’t affect this. The UK is still a member of the Council of Europe, still subject to the jurisdiction of the mentioned Court, so classic civil liberties, civil and political rights, are still going to govern the State's conduct. However, Brexit will have some ramifications in the way the emergency is handled.

Professor Greer said:

"The problems that afflict humanity are global." 

He continued:

Terrorism, health pandemics and of course climate change [are global problems]. So problems that people need to solve together. And the more we’re in institutions that encourage and facilitate cooperation between nations, the better. In cutting ourselves off from European unity, we’ve made it more difficult for ourselves and for the European Union to have common policies about this kind of crisis.

Professor Greer was quite surprised when we mentioned that very small segment of civil society that, at the beginning of the quarantine, talked about the risk of ending up in “martial law” as a consequence of the lockdown.

We asked him if in his opinion their concerns could be justified:

 I don’t think any serious commentator has made that accusation. Martial law requires the courts to be closed. All the normal institutions of government don’t function and basically the army’s in charge of everything. That’s not happening at all. That’s a complete misconception.

As we observed in the last two month, British civil society has found an essential motivation for the effort to stay home: protecting the National Health System (NHS).

Professor Greer concluded:

If people perceive that the health service is under threat – as it is by this crisis – they will make the sacrifice as required. One of the most reassuring things about the management of this crisis is, on every occasion, the Prime Minister himself has appeared at the press briefings flanked by the Chief Scientific Officer and the Chief Medical Officer, so everything that has been proposed is science-based, relying upon the science as it is being understood by our experts.


Of course, that raises the question of how come scientists in other countries have come to different conclusions and that’s a difficult question to address. But you put your finger on a very big question which is the legitimacy of different ways of dealing with crises. Ordinary people, they understand.

As we close the conversation, two more debates come to the fore: regarding the coronavirus contact-tracking app and the possibility for journalists to speak directly with the healthcare professionals in order to report on COVID-19.

While Greer is not particularly afraid of the app if this is useful to tackle the pandemic, he looks much more worried about the warnings against hospital workers allegedly prevented from speaking with reporters.

“Threats of disciplinary action against NHS employees for revealing shortages of PPE and other failings in the way the pandemic is being tackled can’t be defended if the allegations are true,” Greer said. And the reason is strictly related to fundamental liberties.

He emphasised:

“It is not only a violation of the right to freedom of expression but it stifles the disclosure of information that would contribute to the crisis being more effectively managed.”

As if to say, freedom of information is the foundation of social evolution. And, at this moment, the priority we give to the human right to health must be balanced, by having the Government renounce any attempt to stop health workers from shedding light on the malfunctions in the management of this pandemic.

Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist. You can follow Sara on Twitter @sarachessa1.

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