IS THE COVID 19 LEGISLATION A STEP TOO FAR IN THE RESTRICTION OF FREEDOMS? – BY ABIGAIL LENART

IS THE COVID 19 LEGISLATION A STEP TOO FAR IN THE RESTRICTION OF FREEDOMS? – BY ABIGAIL LENART

THE COVID 19 LEGISLATION & CIVIL LIBERTIES

When there is a state of emergency, there is a danger that executive power oversteps their role in legislating what is necessary and proportionate in the situation. In conjunction with the general widespread hysteria portrayed by the media, the public are less likely to notice provisions in emergency legislation that are ‘shoe-horned’ in that will have a huge impact of their essential rights. This article is a non-exhaustive list of the restriction of freedoms that concerns me with the Corona Bill and issues that the general population should be aware. Any impact on the public’s individual freedoms are required to be both necessary and proportionate in all the circumstances and for the impact be be for as long as it is absolutely necessary.

1. Legislation providing powers in a public health crisis is already available to the UK Government

There are already emergency powers available to the UK Government under The Public Health Act 1984 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. So it raises concerns as to why a standalone Coronavirus Bill is necessary.

The standalone Bill provides for these emergency powers lasting potentially beyond two years. Public Health England data suggests that the pandemic will be concluded by Spring 2021 and whilst the Government has assured the public that the Bill would be allowed to lapse after two years but upon careful reading of the Bill, there is provision for the Government to extend these powers for a further six months and potentially, further still. These powers could remain until well into 2022 with no Parliamentary scrutiny that would be afforded to ordinary legislation.

2. Powers provided by the Bill

The Bill is well over 300 pages and contains an extension/provision for the following powers which are a cause of concern:

  • My biggest concern is the provisions for mental health. Vital protections for people have been stripped away with only one healthcare practitioner being needed to section someone in hospital rather than two. This is a massive lowering of the threshold for detention on mental health grounds, taking away some of the safeguards against abuses of power. It also extends time limits on detaining people in a mental health setting and removes the requirement of a second opinion for psychiatric medication against their will under the Mental Health Act. Additionally, time limits on detaining people in a mental health setting have been left ambiguous and open-ended;
  • When one examines the point above, it causes even more concern given that policies such as the alleged anti-radicalisation programme ‘Prevent’ have been accelerated. This programme promotes informing on family members and neighbours who spread ‘conspiracy theories’[1] for which these extended powers could be utilised. Conspiracy Theories are not wrong without looking at the facts behind them – some may well be outlandish but this approach is dangerous, particularly as the issues surrounding COVID-19 have given rise to criticisms from the public that could fall under the ‘Conspiracy Theory’ label;
  • There is an increase in State capacity to issue warrants, access personal information and data for State surveillance. This weakens the safeguards on mass surveillance powers by quadrupling time review limits for urgent warrants;
  • Police and Immigration Officials have the power to detain the public if they suspect they are infected and are empowered to use reasonable force to implement the lawful use of these powers. They are broad, serious powers and should only be used by strict necessity. These powers should be monitored to ensure it is not used in a discriminatory way – i.e. as an extension of police powers to search and detain minority groups. Further, the police are not medical experts and therefore it is unclear how they would be able to ‘suspect’ someone of being infected;
  • An extension of time for the retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles by six to twelve months;
  • Powers to arrange or cancel elections;
  • The standards for social care for the most vulnerable people in society have been loosened, namely the elderly and disabled. In particular, the local authorities are no longer under an obligation to provide new care plans for older, learning disabled and other people who need new care. This also includes ‘looked after’ and vulnerable children. This means these vulnerable groups could get no support at all and once people are discharged from residential facilities, they could be at risk of neglect; and
  • Finally, ports and borders can be closed for extended periods of time if there are not enough border staff. This is extreme and there should be a short maximum limit upon which the borders can be closed. For example, 72 hours.

3. Notable omissions  from

The Bill has a stark lack of clarity surrounding the following:

  • The Bill does not acknowledge the public or their rights at all – a noticeable and telling omission;
  • There has been a complete failure to address the rights and protections of migrants and prisoners in detention centres; and
  • Further, there is an issue that migrants without valid citizenship could have issues with healthcare – if they contract COVID-19, they would likely be reluctant to go to hospital to receive treatment given that their data could be obtained by the Home Office. This appears to be a misguided and self-defeating policy to adopt as these individuals could infect others as they are too scared about being treated.

These omissions are concerning because if COVID-19 was as deadly as the media and Government are portraying, these issues would surely have been given some thought.

The restriction of rights and liberties of the public, in my view, are too great to be justified with this Bill and certainly, the public should be at the very least questioning the consequences of such restriction and whether the executive have over-stepped their powers. Given the bombardment of contemptable hysteria from the media which sought to personalise COVID-19[2], it is understandable that in the early onset of this pandemic, the public were not thinking about such things. Now though, there is no excuse for the scrutiny and dissent of such a Bill, especially given the longevity of the powers it seeks to provide the Executive with.


[1] It should be noted that the term ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ was coined by the CIA to discredit anyone who opposed or was suspicious as to Government policies/actions. It is alarming that such terminology has been used in adverts for such policies. The original advertisement coined this phrase, but has since been removed. Further, the guide for Prevent contained non-violent movements and protests such as young people ‘sitting down’ and ‘walking out of school’ in protest as examples of extremism – not unlike the movements of Greta Thunberg.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/10/xr-extinction-rebellion-listed-extremist-ideology-police-prevent-scheme-guidance

[2] This approach by the media and Government could have been taken by a large number of deaths attributed to other issues such as in road traffic accidents for example.