by David Isaac
Published: 09 Apr 2020
It has been said countless times that the country is experiencing a crisis not seen in modern times. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we all live across the globe and the long-term implications are as yet unclear.
What we do know about this virus is that no matter who you are, whatever your background, or where you live - everyone is at risk. The first role of any government is to protect the lives of its citizens and we support the government wholeheartedly in this.
The social restrictions in place for the last few weeks will do just that if we all play our part. But this means we have seen unprecedented restrictions of our rights in order to stop the spread, protect lives and reduce the pressure on the health service.
As the restrictions on rights and the dramatic measures to stop the spread continue, we know that there are some groups of people who will feel the effects more than others. Those who are most disadvantaged in society need our support now more than ever.
We know that the impact on our human rights resulting from the emergency COVID-19 legislation causes concerns.
As the UK’s equality body and as a national human rights institution, we have been looking at how we can use our unique mandate to help and support these people during these very difficult times. The equality implications stretch far and wide, affecting people with different protected characteristics in different ways.
Significant concerns have been raised by disabled people and their allies about whether they have access to treatment and support. Others are anxious about whether the very sick and elderly will have continuing health care in respect of non COVID-19 treatments.
We are also conscious that decisions made about redundancies may affect the most vulnerable and there is also real anxiety that religious traditions cannot be followed when we lose loved ones.
In addition, we know that the impact on our human rights resulting from the emergency COVID-19 legislation causes concerns - however necessary it is in some circumstances to detain people showing symptoms and for police to take enforcement action against those breaking social distancing rules.
What we are doing
In looking at the impact of all these measures and the action being taken by the governments and local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, we will be responding in the following ways:
We will closely monitor all developments to ensure that the concerns of those most in need are clearly articulated. We will use the distinct voice of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to do this - working closely with all our stakeholders and partners.
We will also continue to examine whether the proportionate use of our enforcement powers might be necessary to challenge policies that are clearly discriminatory and may cause severe disadvantage.
Working with governments and parliament
We will support the government by ensuring that the emergency legislation passed is properly scrutinised and reviewed at the appropriate times. We will ensure that any further changes introduced under the Coronavirus Act are given full and proper consideration in terms of protecting us all but monitoring their impact on the most vulnerable.
The approaches in England, Wales and Scotland will differ based on the measures taken by each government. We have already been in close contact with all governments and wrote to the Prime Minister and briefed parliamentarians as the emergency legislation was debated.
Above all, we believe that our role is to provide expertise and insights to governments in all three nations in relation to what is happening on the ground and expressing the concerns of people in need. It is vital that throughout this crisis the impact on protected groups is properly understood and monitored. We will raise awareness of these difficulties directly at the heart of government. To do this we welcome evidence or details of your concerns.
Fulfilling equality and human rights duties
Local governments and those providing public services are facing new challenges. Carefully considering potential equality and human rights implications will enable better and more effective decision making in difficult times and we will soon be sharing practical information with these bodies to help them.
We will be reminding all organisations carrying out public functions that they must consider in their decision making the impact on people sharing different protected characteristics, and good relations in the community. This is called the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). We are working with other regulators so that they adhere to their duties under the PSED to monitor how public services are meeting different needs.
The year ahead
Our statutory mandate to advise governments has never been so important. We know and understand that difficult decisions and compromises will need to be made to protect people’s lives. Human rights and equality law provide a framework to help governments make decisions to balance public safety and economic interests with the universal values of freedom, respect and fairness.
My hope is that it will allow us to overcome very recent divisions in our society.
This approach will help the whole country get through the major challenges it faces and allow us to emerge stronger and more united. My hope is that it will allow us to overcome very recent divisions in our society.
The COVID-19 crisis has made us re-examine our plans for this year and we have adjusted them to ensure that we can help advise all governments across Britain where necessary. We have already made the decision not to enforce the gender pay gap regulations for this year. This was the right thing to do as businesses and public bodies reacted to the pandemic.
None of us know how long it will take to overcome the challenges of coronavirus, but I do take comfort in seeing how colleagues at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and other organisations have responded so quickly to adapt to these very challenging new conditions.
As difficult decisions are made we must not forget those people who will be more impacted by this crisis than others. Martin Luther King said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. Britain is a world leader in human rights and now is the moment to demonstrate it.