Originally published on April 11th, 2020
On Friday the 20th of March 2020 at 5 o’clock, I was, like many others, sat in front of the television, eagerly awaiting the latest briefing regarding the Coronavirus from Number 10. A rather weary looking yet serious Mr. Johnson addressed the nation, supported by fresh-faced Chancellor Rishi Sunak and deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries. Amidst the ‘unprecedented’ social and economic measures enacted to deal with the effect that COVID-19 is having upon our society, there was one thing that really stood out for me about this briefing; Mr. Johnson’s remark that he was ‘taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub’ (Government Coronavirus address, 2020). The focus on ‘rights’, albeit a rather trivial right in this scenario, is of particular importance as this pandemic sweeps across the world. In order to combat the threat, certain rights will have to be curtailed. Yes, for a short period of time Britons will lose the right to go to the pub, but there are far bigger and more worrying threats to our civil liberties, as governments and leaders across the globe scramble to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Johnson’s choice of vocabulary in this scenario is of particular interest. As a British citizen we are incredibly lucky to have many rights that could be referred to as inalienable, that is these rights being absolute and inviolable. However, there are rights, ones that many of us will have taken for granted previously, that the British government will attempt to limit over the coming few months; yet choosing to single out the inability to go for a drink highlights something quite important. This virus will severely alter our way of life for the foreseeable future, and the implications will be of far greater significance than losing the ability to go to the pub. In that news briefing, several other important rights were limited. For some of us, our rights to work in our chosen profession has been taken away and for others, the implications of the virus mean that their areas of work will cease to exist for the time being, such as the hospitality industry. Publicans and non-essential shop owners have been forced to close and face fines or revocations of licenses if they flout the rules, and eateries have been ordered to run a backwards facing operation, that is takeaways only. Although not as strict as our European neighbours, the social distancing measures put in place by our government partially restrict our right to freedom of movement. The introduction of a limit on exercise, at a guideline rate of one hour per day, will affect the lives of millions of British citizens who had previously taken this for granted. In the wake of a national emergency, our rights as citizens are curtailed and the power of the state increased.
This presents a worrying dilemma for citizens across the globe. In the United Kingdom, the Coronavirus Bill, which was somewhat rushed through Parliament, was given Royal Assent on the 25th of March, creating the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Parliament, 2020). First versions of the Bill exemplify the growing disparity between state power and citizen’s rights, one of the major issues raised regarded forced cremations for those who died as a result of the virus. Not only would this have taken away the right to choose what happens to your body when you die, but more importantly contradicts the strict laws around burial in the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Amendments to this have been made after consultation with religious authorities, but the original intention of the provision angered many at its insensitive nature, with the Jewish Chronicle’s Board of Deputies President saying that it would have ‘only add to the sorrow of grieving families and go against fundamental freedoms of religion and belief’ (van der Zyl, 2020), had it passed. Luckily for those in the United Kingdom and most of the Western world, these issues face public challenge and scrutiny by both members of Parliament and the public with the intention of protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms. People residing in other nations are not so lucky. Comparing the same issue in Sri-Lanka, the minority Muslim community have been subjected to forced cremations, with the government violating World Health Organisation guidelines in doing so (Qazi and Thasleem,2020).
In regard to the Coronavirus and its implications in the future, a correlation between the increase of infections and deaths in a country against a loss of rights and increase in state power, is inevitable. Some world leaders have seen an opportunity to tighten their autocratic grip; the New York Times summarises this well.
‘In Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by decree. In Britain, ministers have what a critic called “eye-watering” power to detain people and close borders. Israel’s prime minister has shut down courts and begun an intrusive surveillance of citizens. Chile has sent the military to public squares once occupied by protesters. Bolivia has postponed elections (Gebrekidan, 2020).
In comparison, the loss of our ‘inalienable right of going to the pub’ seems entirely trivial, and perhaps this was the intention, to distract attention away from the more serious infringements on rights. Interestingly, the British government’s policy to tackle the virus is included in this quote and its measures placed on par with countries, namely Chile and Bolivia which far too often can be seen to restrict the rights of their citizens. The British approach is drastic, and yes drastic measures do need to be enacted to curb the spread the disease and ‘flatten the curve’, but Britain is veering away from the more substantive aspects of our legal system. A harrowing wakeup call for many people across Britain came in the photo of 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, the first child in the United Kingdom to pass away from the Coronavirus, being lowered into his grave with no family members present. Many other families have also been left unable to say their last goodbyes to loved ones as a result of government introduced social distancing policies. When rights are infringed, one of the first questions is whether it can be morally justified. Article 2 of the Human Rights Act provides us all with a ‘right to life’ (Human Rights Act, 1998), but leaders and governments across the globe have an increased influence over this in this time of crisis. Most health services have devised a tiering system to select which patients are to be given ventilators. The Independent notes that ‘potentially, it could also see a patient already on a ventilator removed to allow a someone with a greater chance of survival to take his or her place’ (Merrick, 2020). This tiering system compares the ‘right to life’ of one citizen to another, and although its purpose is to prioritise patients with a higher chance of survival, it raises questions over government policy, their lack of preparation for a pandemic, and their failure to adequately equip their hospitals. Furthermore, Coronavirus patients appear to be prioritised over other patients in equally serious conditions with many people finding critical medical appointments cancelled to create extra beds to deal with the virus, which again, questions the morality of government decisions in relation to our right to life.
In Britain, the Coronavirus Act is subject to a ‘6-month review period’ (Coronavirus Act, 2020) up to a maximum of two years. These measures are thankfully only temporary, but the same cannot be said for other countries and the Coronavirus will have implications on citizens’ rights for the foreseeable future. It has blurred the lines as to what is acceptable government policy, and has certainly broken barriers as what governments can and cannot do. To use the example of Israel, its president Benjamin Netanyahu sanctioned the use of mobile network tracking to monitor those who had tested positive for Coronavirus in order to enforce strict isolation policies (Lomas, 2020). These emergency laws were passed ‘during an overnight sitting of the cabinet, bypassing parliamentary approval’ (Tidy, 2020) according to the BBC and this is frightening, seeing as previously these powers have been reserved for counterterrorism operations. The largest Human Rights non-government organisation in Israel, ACRI, tweeted that the enactment of a state of emergency ‘poses a serious danger to human rights and gives unlimited power to the government’ (ACRI, 2020). China and South Korea have also employed the use of mass surveillance systems to combat the threat of the virus and looking at the data from their published figures, these seem to have contributed to a decline in both deaths and cases. The BBC however, make an important point in their article: ‘this is a public health threat, not a security one’(Tidy, 2020). Many countries governments and leaders seem to be adopting this principle of political Machiavellism, that is ‘the supreme law of politics is success. Politics, therefore, cannot recognize any moral law as binding’ (Ferrero, 1939).
However, this sets a dangerous precedent. Israel, South Korea, China, and the handful of other countries that have employed invasive technological methods to curb the virus will inadvertently prove the frightening effectiveness of these methods through their statistics, and with this motivation there is an even greater chance that these statistics will be unreliable. Human psychology works in such a way that ‘easily rememberable events may inflate people’s probability judgements’ and a good way to ‘increase people’s confidence is to remind them of an event where everything worked out for the best.’ (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). China’s facial recognition towers were once the subject of heavy western opposition, yet have proven useful in tracking the movement of infected citizens and aiding lockdown measures. They have become a crucial weapon in their fight against this invisible enemy. However, it poses two questions: what other scenarios will governments enforce such drastic and invasive methods in, and whether the Coronavirus episode could distort government’s perceptions as to what rights are inalienable? Whether or not we can go to the pub should be the least of our worries!
– Luke, first year law student at the University of Bristol
Government Coronavirus Address, 23rd March 2020
Coronavirus Act 2020 — UK Parliament. 2020. Coronavirus Act 2020 — UK Parliament. [ONLINE] Available at: https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/coronavirus.html.
Anguish as Sri Lanka forces Muslims to cremate COVID-19 victims | Sri Lanka News | Al Jazeera. 2020. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/anguish-sri-lanka-forces-muslims-cremate-covid-19-victims-200403053706048.html.
For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power – The New York Times. 2020. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/world/europe/coronavirus-governments-power.html.
Human Rights Act 1998 Article 2
The Independent. 2020. Coronavirus: NHS doctors to be given guidelines to decide which victims go on ventilators | The Independent. [ONLINE] Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-boris-johnson-uk-doctor-victims-intensive-care-ventilator-italy-a9415356.html.
Coronavirus Act 2020 Section 94
Israel passes emergency law to use mobile data for covid-19 contact tracing. [ONLINE] Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/18/israel-passes-emergency-law-to-use-mobile-data-for-covid-19-contact-tracing/.
twitter.com. 2020. [ONLINE] Available at: https://twitter.com/acri_online/status/1239657307342077954.
Foreign Affairs. 2020. Machiavelli and Machiavellism | Foreign Affairs. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1939-04-01/machiavelli-and-machiavellism.
Thaler, Richard H and Sunstein ,Cass R. 2008. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth And Happiness. Penguin.