Today
Sun 17 January 2021

Under the cover of seemingly generous economic policies, the Government has eroded the rights of vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Sam Bright

“Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic,” wrote The New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo on 11 March, as COVID-19 emerged as a scientific, social and economic catastrophe, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20.

In the UK, this maxim has to some extent been proven accurate.

As last week’s Spending Review demonstrated, the Government has deployed its vast resources to prop up businesses, stave off unemployment and formulate an occasionally competent public health response to the crisis. This year alone, the Government is set to borrow £400 billion – equivalent to around 20% of the national income.

This has been a revolutionary endeavour for a political party that has been historically reticent about the merits of Government spending. And, when the Government has acted promptly, intelligently and generously, it has managed to insulate the public from some of the worst excesses of the pandemic. The labour market in the UK is relatively stable, compared, for example, with the 40 million Americans who filed for unemployment in the months up to June.

However, this generosity and efficiency has not extended to all aspects of Government policy. In many fields, Boris Johnson’s administration has used COVID-19 as an excuse – whether consciously or not – to restrict rights and withhold support from those most in need.

Take the asylum system. As Byline Times has revealed, the Home Office – a department not known for its empathy – is acting with impunity when housing asylum seekers. A parliamentary report published last week noted that the Home Office has shipped asylum seekers across the country, often without informing councils or local GPs. Many of these people have then been kept in hotels, forced to share rooms and sanitary facilities with other lodgers – markedly increasing their risk of catching the Coronavirus.

“We do not have confidence in the providers, or the Home Office, to effectively manage the accommodation and support of those seeking asylum,” Barnsley Council told the Public Accounts Committee.

What’s more, while asylum seekers in the system are buffeted between temporary forms of accommodation, others have been blocked from entering the country altogether. The UK’s refugee resettlement schemes – the commitments made by the Government to resettle vulnerable people from war-torn states – have been immobilised since the onset of the pandemic. “I think we do more than our fair share while protecting vulnerable people,” said Immigration Minister Chris Philp, when questioned about the issue in the House of Commons.

The Government has pledged that it will restart the schemes in the new year, yet this will provide little solace to the 20,000 Syrians alone who were due to be resettled in the UK in 2020. Ironically, the dormancy of the resettlement programmes also exposes the duplicity of Home Secretary Priti Patel. She has been fanning faux outrage about “illegal” Channel-crossing asylum seekers, while blocking one of the few, official routes for people to seek refuge in the UK.

Another policy booted into the long-grass has been the Government’s long-awaited review into the social care sector. Teetering on the precipice of crisis for years, social care providers are now in free fall. It has been estimated that 20,000 care home residents in the UK have died from COVID-19, out of 70,000 total deaths from the disease, while staff have suffered from a shortage of protective equipment.

Despite this, the Department of Health and Social Care has confessed that its proposals to reform the sector will not be released until next year. COVID-19 has been used as an “excuse for procrastination”, according to the former Conservative minister Lord Michael Forsyth of Drumlean.

It is certainly justified for an all-consuming pandemic to stall some of the Government’s work, but the problem stems from prioritisation: which projects are seen as indispensable and which are mothballed.

Brexit is one of the pandemic-proof projects, still doggedly pursued in the face of growing public uncertainty. Indeed, on the one hand, the Government has committed to delivering tens of millions of vaccine doses at lightning speed next year. On the other, it is pushing through a Brexit policy that is predicted to cause widespread chaos at ports, delaying the supply of medicines and related equipment.

This contradiction should raise a giant red flag in Downing Street, yet is seemingly of little concern to a Government that specialises in crisis-creation.


True to Form

As national self-destruction continues apace in the form of Brexit, threatening to undermine human rights and economic opportunities, so too has the Government used the pandemic to starve some people of support.

Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson acted unlawfully in removing safeguards for children during the early stages of the pandemic. Williamson’s department diluted or removed, on a temporary basis, 65 legal protections designed to protect children in care in England. This included changes concerning the timescales for social worker visits, six-monthly reviews of children’s welfare, and independent scrutiny of children’s homes.

“The Government’s actions were shameful, both in the scale of the protections they took away from very vulnerable children in England and the way they went about it,” Carolyne Willow, director of the children’s rights charity Article 39, told the Guardian.

But children in care are not the only ones to have borne the brunt of the Government’s callous Coronavirus policies. The Coronavirus Act, the legislation passed in March that formalised the daily social restrictions we now all face, also institutionalised discrimination against the mentally and physically disabled.

The Act – which creates “the potential for violations to fundamental human rights”, according to Human Rights Watch – made it easier for people to be detained on mental health grounds, removing the provision for a second medical opinion.

It also reduces the responsibilities of local councils towards disabled people and the elderly, essentially suspending their duties to carry out care assessments of new needs, and/or to reassess individuals if their circumstances change. Councils are likewise not required to prepare or review care and support plans – the details of a person’s care arrangements – once someone with a disability is discharged from a residential facility.

“The legislation… pulled away safeguards and weakened standards for some of the most marginalised people in our country just at the very moment they most needed help,” Shadow Minister for Disabled People Vicky Foxcroft wrote in The Independent in late September.

Foxcroft’s article was part of a lobbying effort from the Opposition, urging the Government to reinstate the above provisions, while Parliament debated whether to renew the Coronavirus Act – something that is required every six months during its two-year lifespan.

While Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock listened to concerns over mental health detention, the Government refused to reverse its dilution of disability rights.

Of course, all of this fails to mention the showpiece of Government incompetence during the Coronavirus pandemic: its inefficient, expensive private sector procurement splurge.

Dispensing with normal procurement practices, permitted during an emergency, the Government has awarded £10.5 billion in contracts without competition. Deals worth hundreds of millions have been awarded to firms with links to the Conservative Party, while two National Audit Office reports have laid bare details of the biased, dysfunctional procurement process.

In many respects, Johnson’s Government has acted against its instincts during the pandemic, implementing an agenda that would at any other time be labelled as radically socialist. But, beyond its headline-grabbing pseudo-socialism, the Government has carelessly and more characteristically eroded the rights of the marginalised.


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