Liberty is calling for the Coronavirus Act 2020 to be scrapped, highlighting that it contains sweeping powers that continue to threaten basic civil rights – and which Parliament can choose to renew indefinitely. The rights group warns:
- Greatest limitation on liberty of a generation still in force after 100 days;
- Most marginalised communities continue to be hardest hit;
- No time limit on powers despite government easing lockdown.
Liberty warned last Friday that laws which set out a drastic re-imagining of state powers are still on the statute book.
The Coronavirus Act was passed just over 100 days ago, on 25 March, as the pandemic gripped the country and was central to the government’s response to the outbreak.
But Liberty criticised this approach, warning that the Act prioritised criminal justice over public health and would inevitably harm people’s rights, particularly the most marginalised.
Now that lockdown is easing, Liberty is highlighting that the stranglehold on civil liberties is far from over.
It’s now calling for the Act to be scrapped entirely and for government to focus on a response to the pandemic which protects human rights and leaves civil liberties intact.
‘Times of crisis always create the conditions for our rights to be swept away – we must now demand them back,’ said Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty.
Under the Coronavirus Act 2020:
- Police forces have been granted sweeping and unworkable powers to detain anyone who could be infectious;
- Powers have been created to forcibly test, question and isolate people indefinitely – with criminal sanctions if they don’t comply;
- Safeguards for disabled people, people with mental health issues and those who rely on social care have been stripped away just when people are most at risk;
- Dangerous restrictions on the right to protest have been created;
- Borders can be closed and some elections suspended.
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak people everywhere have shown they are willing to change the way they live to protect one another, and Liberty has always supported proportionate action to protect lives.
But the Coronavirus Act has failed to uphold people’s rights while leaving the most marginalised worst affected.
Liberty briefed MPs on the dangers of the 329-page Coronavirus Act when it was introduced, warning the powers were too broad and could be in place for far too long.
Nevertheless, the Act was rushed through Parliament in just one day.
Since then, Liberty has repeatedly warned that marginalised communities would be worst hit not only by the pandemic itself, but also by the Act’s powers.
These fears have been confirmed by incidents like eight councils using Coronavirus Act powers to relax care standards, and the government has failed to heed warnings to suspend the hostile environment which stops migrants from accessing healthcare and support.
Meanwhile, every charge made under the Coronavirus Act has been found by the Criminal Prosecution Service to be wrong – and figures revealed by Liberty’s investigative journalism unit Liberty Investigates found that under the health regulations which accompanied the Act, people of colour are up to seven times more likely to be fined than white people.
The Coronavirus Act contains no hard time limit, meaning some of its powers can remain in force indefinitely and well beyond the current pandemic if they are renewed by Parliament.
However, MPs do have to vote on whether or not to scrap the Act within six months of its introduction thanks to an amendment introduced after calls from Liberty, other organisations and cross-party MPs to introduce a time-bound review.
Liberty is now calling for MPs to repeal the Act when it comes up for review, which could be within a matter of months.
Since the lockdown started Liberty has produced a raft of Know Your Rights guides to help the public understand the new laws and regulations and feel empowered to uphold their rights.
It has also produced resources for those protesting during the pandemic that were distributed at Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country and produced thousands of specific guides for homeless people at risk of criminalisation because of lockdown.
Liberty, which is the UK’s largest civil liberties membership organisation, has also lowered its membership fee to £1 given the existential threat to civil liberties posed by the Coronavirus Act.
Liberty’s Martha Spurrier said: ‘Now that pubs and restaurants are opening up, some people will no doubt be under the illusion that lockdown is over.
‘But they must be aware that a law remains that effectively locks down our civil liberties and that some of the restrictions could remain indefinitely.
‘It is dangerous legislation that should never have been passed – and it must now be repealed.
‘Emergency measures are still in force, meaning police still have dangerously sweeping powers, mental health and social care safeguards can be suspended, and our protest rights are under threat.
‘We needed a public health response, not a criminal justice crackdown.
‘There can never be any justification for these overbearing powers – they have impacted poor, marginalised communities the most and continue to do so.
‘Times of crisis always create the conditions for our rights to be swept away – we must now demand them back.’