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COVID-19 restrictions and the effect on human rights

The government announced a number of measures to combat the sharp rise in coronavirus infection rates. Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath responds on the human rights implications of restrictions

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The government recently announced a number of measures to combat the sharp rise in coronavirus infection rates in the UK.

The government has tightened exemptions for the 'rule of six' after the PM warned the UK was at a "perilous turning point" in the fight against coronavirus.

Addressing MPs in the Commons on September 22, Boris Johnson imposed tighter restrictions on weddings and sports, saying it was crucial to act now because "a stitch in time saves nine".

Commenting on the human rights implications of restrictions on people’s lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said:

We are walking a tightrope. We need to find the balance between saving lives from coronavirus, and allowing people the hard won freedoms that are the framework for those lives - such as a right to a private and family life, to freedom of assembly, and to an education. This must go hand in hand with an economic recovery that provides everyone with an adequate standard of living.

At the same time, we must protect those many other lives which will be put at risk without access to appropriate health and social care, such as older and disabled people, patients with cancer or with mental health challenges - or risked through the rising rates of domestic violence.

In lockdown we heard how those in residential care were being protected as much as possible from the virus, but we also heard how people were deprived of family when they needed them most. Staying at home to protect the NHS was a simple message but it may have stopped screening and the right to health care for those with other conditions such as cancer. Blanket approaches may well have other consequences. The virus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and we have to make sure that our efforts to live free from coronavirus don’t come at too high a price.

As more restrictions are considered, we’re calling on the Government to make sure that protections are proportionate, measured, and rooted in science and the law. Any changes that restrict our rights must be flexible, with review and end points, and remain open to challenge. If we want to protect public health and save lives, then changes need to complement or enhance our human rights, not treat them as optional.