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Tue 31 March 2020
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Steve Shaw reports on the Coronavirus Bill, which introduces new emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

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The Government is attempting to fast-track a bill that will hand it the most draconian powers ever used during peacetime as part of the battle to contain the Coronavirus pandemic.

The emergency powers laid out in the Coronavirus Bill will empower police, immigration officers and public health officials to detain and isolate any members of the public, including children, and allows them to forcibly take biological samples for testing. 

Sweeping powers will also allow mass gatherings – including political assemblies and protests – to be shut down, and safeguards on the use of surveillance will be weakened by quadrupling time review limits for urgent warrants. 

The Government wants to have access to the powers for the next two years and is trying to fast-track the bill through Parliament. But some MPs, including the former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis, believe that the powers should only be in place for 12 months. Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch has also warned that some of the powers are “unprecedented, unexplained and simply unjustified”.

“It is right that Government is taking rapid and robust action to protect public health, but we cannot let basic rights fall casualty to this crisis,” said the organisation’s director, Silkie Carlo. “Our country faces challenges best when we hold onto our values, not abandon them. The bill contains blank cheque powers to detain and test ‘potentially infectious’ members of the public and even children in unidentified isolation facilities on threat of criminal sanctions. 

“It contains sweeping powers to shut down even political assemblies, which could thwart the possibility of public protest against this power-grab in the months ahead. These breathtaking powers demand utmost caution, the closest scrutiny and the strictest time limitations. Many of the powers are unprecedented, unexplained and simply unjustified. The two-year duration of the Act has not been justified and is totally out of step with the existing legal standards for emergency regulations.

“This is no time for parliamentarians to abdicate their vital function of scrutiny. These extraordinary powers risk permanently re-balancing the relationship between citizens and the state. This crisis requires the public’s courage and co-operation, not our criminalisation. These are the most draconian powers ever proposed in peace-time Britain and they require urgent review and reform.”


Pretext to Curb Rights?

The Coronavirus Bill has been published at a time when there is growing global concern that governments may use COVID-19 as justification for power-grabs. Earlier this month, a panel of UN human rights experts in Geneva urged world leaders only to use legislation that is “proportionate” to the risk.

“While we recognise the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the Coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” they said.

“The use of emergency powers must be publicly declared and should be notified to the relevant treaty bodies when fundamental rights including movement, family life and assembly are being significantly limited. Moreover, emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals.

“It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders. Restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

Dr Bruce Aylward, leader of a World Health Organisation team that visited China as it battled the outbreak, praised the country’s leaders for the way it had responded – including the construction of an emergency hospital in 10 days and placing close to 60 million people under quarantine. But, he ignored how authorities had also detained people for reporting on the pandemic on social media, as well as internet users for ‘rumour-mongering’. China has also censored online discussions, and curbed media reporting.

The outbreak has also been used to justify even greater intrusion into the lives of citizens, with the introduction of facial recognition cameras capable of detecting elevated temperatures in a crowd and rewards for people who inform on sick neighbours. Telecom operators have also been used to track people’s movements – a measure the UK Government is also said to be considering.

Human Rights Watch highlighted the repercussions of China’s decision to quarantine millions in a report from the group’s China researcher, Yaqiu Wang, who notes: “A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one took care of him after his father was taken to be quarantined. A woman with leukaemia died after being turned away by several hospitals because of concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately pleaded to the police to let her leukaemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge to get chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his apartment balcony after he couldn’t get access to health facilities for dialysis. And at least 10 people died after a hotel being used as a quarantine facility collapsed.

“Even if the draconian containment measures the Chinese authorities later adopted – after they delayed and bungled the early response – were helpful, we should ask, at what and whose expenses?”

The use of the Coronavirus to justify infringing human rights bears similarities to legislation that has been implemented under the pretext of fighting terrorism. In the UK, this included the controversial Prevent programme – aimed at stopping individuals from becoming involved in terrorism – which a UN expert claimed at the beginning of March was “inherently flawed” and contributed to human rights violations against religious minorities who had been targeted in the guise of countering “extremism”. 

The former Prime Minister Theresa May also floated the idea of introducing Chinese-style censorship of the internet and campaign groups ranging from Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade were put on lists alongside extremists.

Meanwhile, China has used counter-terrorism to justify detaining more than a million Uyghur Muslims, in Myanmar it was the excuse for genocide against the Rohingya minority, in Turkey it was used to curb media freedoms, and in the US it led to an unprecedented global surveillance programme.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said: “As governments are starting to scale-up their public health response, the threat posed by COVID-19 is reason to reaffirm, not abandon, everyone’s rights. That means prioritising science over politics, caring for those most at risk, avoiding censorship, limiting lockdowns, and building the public trust that is essential to an effective response.”


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