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It’s Not Just Covid-19 That Threatens UK’s Human Rights

Fighting Pandemic Should Not Mean Other Problems Are Ignored

A man wheels his suitcase across Westminster Bridge looking towards the Houses of Parliament, at would normally be rush hour as the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus continues in London, March 30, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Frank Augstein

More than 40,000 people dead. Hard decisions about how to relax a lockdown that has confined millions to their homes. Covid-19 understandably continues to dominate headlines and the focus of United Kingdom policymakers.

That applies to human rights too. Coronavirus means new rights issues demand our attention, such as how to ensure access to education, protect medics and care workers, and secure privacy when tracking Covid-19 infections. The UK government has passed emergency laws giving it far-reaching powers during the outbreak, weakening safeguards for people with mental health conditions if they are detained, and relaxing standards in social care. That all requires scrutiny.

Covid-19 has also amplified longstanding rights concerns in the UK, including the failure to protect older people in the social care system, inadequate government support for domestic violence survivors, the many people who depend on food banks to feed their families, and the rising number of homeless people.

We shouldn’t forget the policies that have exacerbated the impact of this pandemic: a decade of economic austerity and deep cuts to public services. An openly hostile immigration policy. Unsafe housing and unequal justice.

We must not lose sight of vital rights issues beyond the pandemic, notably the Windrush scandal, where UK government policies deeply damaged the lives of Black Britons, and the lack of justice for the victims of overseas war crimes and torture by British forces.

There remains a real risk that this government will try to weaken our human rights in the future, whether through Brexit or undermining domestic human rights laws.  

It’s vital that Parliament, media, civil society, and the courts hold the UK government to account over its response to the pandemic and its impact on human rights.

That should include lasting solutions beyond the pandemic.

If authorities can find temporary shelter for hundreds of homeless people during this crisis, they should be able to do so permanently. If the government can help feed children in deprived areas during Covid-19-related school closures, it can surely do the same during regular term time. And if help is given to survivors of domestic violence attacks under lockdown, authorities should be able to address the severe shortage of refuge places in ordinary times. 

At some point, Covid-19 will no longer be a public health emergency. When that moment comes, we must be ready to tackle the other human rights challenges the country faces.

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