Covid gave the Government extra powers, now they must let them go

When the pandemic made its way to the UK, the Government made a series of dramatic changes to state powers.

From policing to data protection, to social care to protest, some of our fundamental human rights and civil liberties have been put at risk. We were facing a public health crisis, yet the response from the Government was a criminal justice crackdown. 

The Coronavirus Act 2020 – which was passed exactly 100 days ago today – was central to the Government’s response. Ministers claimed the measures in the Act were essential to cope with the pandemic, but the truth is that it goes far beyond proportionate action.

It contains powers many people don’t even know exist, and which tear away at the very heart of our human rights. It strips away safeguards for disabled people, people with mental health issues and those who rely on social care just when they were most at risk.

This is an Act that imposes dangerous restrictions on the right to protest, creates new powers to detain us and force any one of us to give biological samples, and gives the Government the ability to close our borders and suspend some elections. 

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Now, despite the fact lockdown is easing, the Coronavirus Act continues to stand on the statute books as an indefinite threat to our rights. 

For many of us, the past few months have involved hard but necessary sacrifices. We had to adapt to a ‘new normal’ in the name of public health. But what that felt like was vastly different for each of us, because the Government’s response did not consider everyone equally. While we were all facing the same virus, some of us were left unprotected – and even put in harm’s way. 

Marginalised communities and people dependent on support faced a double threat during the pandemic. On one side, there was the coronavirus itself, now well-known to have hit certain communities hardest. On the other, there was the Coronavirus Act and accompanying regulations – which targeted pockets of the population with punitive measures dished out in the name of public health. 

Many of us were left unsure if we might be criminalised for anything from exercising our right to protest to going out for exercise

While many were able to stay safe and secure during lockdown, others felt the hard edge of the oppressive state power the Act created.

At least eight councils used Coronavirus Act powers to relax care standards for people when they were needed most. And analysis by Liberty Investigates found that people of colour were up to seven times more likely to be fined than white people under new police powers. 

Meanwhile, the Government failed to heed warnings to suspend the hostile environment. This meant that some migrants in this country were prevented from accessing healthcare and other support – even though we’re in the middle a global health crisis.

The Coronavirus Act also passed Parliament with minimal scrutiny, and the Government went on to side-line our elected representatives throughout the lockdown, repeatedly using emergency powers to introduce radical changes to police powers with no notice or oversight.

Decision-making was opaque and communications confused. Many of us were left unsure if we might be criminalised for anything from exercising our right to protest to going out for exercise. 

Uncertainty and broad powers have already combined to make people suffer and this will continue if harsh punishments remain but conditions continue to change. For example, local lockdowns will make it harder to follow the rules – yet the extraordinary directives of the Coronavirus Act remain.

People may find themselves punished by laws and regulations they know little about because they have been led to believe ‘lockdown is over’. These punishments will undoubtedly follow discriminatory patterns, particularly if they are imposed in densely populated areas.

The pandemic isn’t over and we know that targeted measures to protect public health are needed. But the Coronavirus Act isn’t the answer and never has been. Other laws like the Civil Contingencies Act (which sets a clear set of roles and responsibilities for those involved in emergency preparation and response) have always been available – and still are. 

While politicians call for our awakening from lockdown ‘hibernation’, they haven’t  given up the phenomenal rulings they rushed through at the start of the pandemic.

But there is an opportunity for us to demand action. Thanks to calls from Liberty and other human rights organisations, a review of the Coronavirus Act must happen within six months of its introduction. 

Times of crisis are always ripe for the watering down of human rights and the restriction of fundamental freedoms. We can’t let that happen – we must demand a repeal of this dangerous legislation.

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