15 October 2021

This week a report was published which examined the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in England. The Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, composed of MPs from all parties, highlighted the significant failures in how this public health crisis was handled, as well as drawing out some successes and making recommendations to the UK Government on lessons to be learned. You can read the report in full here.

The report criticised the UK’s ‘fatalistic approach’ to the pandemic, as attempts were made to manage the spread of the virus instead of trying to stop it spreading altogether. Other errors in the response to the pandemic were identified, including the lateness of the first lockdown in March 2020, the ‘slow’ and ‘chaotic’ test and trace system, and the underestimation of the risk to the social care sector.

Covid-19 shone a light on existing inequalities in UK society. The report said steps must be taken to tackle social, health and economic inequalities that put people from Black and minoritised communities, as well as people with learning disabilities and autistic people, at greater risk from the virus.

Some successes were also recognised in the report. The Government's early investment in research and development to create a vaccine against Covid-19 was praised, with the report stating that the vaccination rollout in the UK has brought 'incalculable benefits to people's lives, livelihoods and to society'.

How is this report relevant to human rights?

Although the phrase “human rights” is nowhere to be seen in this report, the human rights implications of this report are significant.

The Human Rights Act is the main law in the UK which protects our rights. It puts a legal duty on government bodies to respect, protect and fulfil our rights. This legal duty must be met at all times, especially during times of crisis.

We have 16 rights to be exact, including the right to life, the right to respect for family life, the right to liberty, and the right to be free from discrimination. The Covid-19 pandemic has often seen these rights restricted, lawfully and legitimately but perhaps without necessary alternatives in place, and in some instances, these rights have been completely breached.

The right to life was at stake when DNACPR orders were issued inappropriately to people with learning disabilities.

The right to respect for family life was at stake when care homes implemented blanket visiting policies, meaning some residents did not see their loved ones for months on end.

The right to liberty was at stake when children in mental health hospitals were locked in their bedrooms for 14 days at a time during outbreaks.

The right to be free from discrimination (and the right to life) was at stake when NHS staff from Black and minoritised communities found it harder to access PPE to keep them safe from the virus at work.

Why Our Human Rights Act Matters

This report tells us that government decision-makers often failed in their legal duty to respect and protect our human rights. During times of emergency, it is more, not less, important to ensure people’s rights are upheld.

The Human Rights Act exists to put checks and balances on the power of public bodies, and it provides an excellent legal framework to allow this. However, greater awareness is needed to make sure public officials meet their legal duties, and to make sure people feel confident in asking for their rights to be upheld.

We are asking people, groups and organisations all over the UK to tell us why our Human Rights Act matters to them. Find out more here.

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