The benign intent of the government in its request that citizens self-isolate to protect others against spreading COVID-19 is not in question. But national and international crises can and have been used to justify an erosion of human rights. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explains that “man-made conflicts, natural disasters and pandemics often result in or exacerbate human rights concerns”.

The UK government has the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 at its disposal. This gives broad powers to make emergency regulations “for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency”. The importance of a proportionate response is, mercifully, stated in this legislation. Nevertheless, it can prohibit assemblies of people from forming, and restrict or require the movement of people from or to a particular place. It would be an offence to fail to comply with regulations created by this Act.

On February 10th, the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 were laid before Parliament. They give “health professionals the power to detain patients with COVID-19 for the specific purposes of screening and assessment, or to isolate them for a period of time. The regulations also empower police constables to detain people suspected of having the virus.”

The OHCHR has already requested that governments worldwide “consider the impact on economic and social rights by the steps they take” with regards to COVID-19, stating that “people who are already barely surviving economically may all too easily be pushed over the edge by measures being adopted to contain the virus.”

The probable outcome of all this legislation is an appropriate, time-limited response. But it is important to recognise the slide towards authoritarianism which can occur when fundamental rights are curtailed.

So we can better hold the powerful to account, Doctors in Unite is proud to affiliate our trade union with Liberty, the campaigning human rights organisation. Together we will continue to fight to protect the rights of patients, health care workers, and the wider population during this coming pandemic. Now more than ever we must fly the flag for equality, the rule of law, and the protection of those who are most vulnerable.