United Kingdom 2020
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United Kingdom 2020

The government response to COVID-19 raised human rights concerns, including in relation to health, immigration policies, domestic abuse and housing. Instances of racial discrimination and excessive force against protesters by the police were documented. Northern Ireland made progress on same-sex marriage and abortion, but full accountability for past violations remained unrealized. New licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia resumed. Bills on counter-terrorism and overseas military operations endangered human rights. Extradition proceedings against Julian Assange threatened the right to freedom of expression.

Background

On 31 January, the UK left the European Union and began an 11-month transition period.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament granted far-reaching emergency powers to the UK and devolved governments for up to two years, subject to parliamentary renewal every six months. Lockdowns implemented to slow the spread of the virus severely restricted freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to privacy and family life.

At least 74,570 people died in the UK as a result of COVID-19 in 2020. The economic impact of the pandemic caused widespread hardship, particularly for those in insecure employment and people subject to immigration controls.

In May and June, Black Lives Matter protests drew attention to systemic racism and discrimination against Black people.

Right to health

The UK death toll due to COVID-19 represented one of the highest death rates from the virus in Europe. Health and other essential workers reported shortages of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize their risk of contracting COVID-19. By 25 May, 540 deaths involving COVID-19 had been registered among social care and health workers.1 The authorities violated the right to health and right to life of older people resident in care homes, including by failing to provide adequate PPE and regular testing, discharging infected or possibly infected patients from hospitals to care homes and suspending regular oversight procedures.2

In June, an official investigation found that people of Black and Asian ethnicity were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In particular, Black and Asian health workers were significantly over-represented among COVID-19 related deaths of health workers.

The government resisted calls from over 70 organizations to immediately launch an independent public inquiry into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that an inquiry would take place at an unspecified time in the future.

Discrimination

In March, a review of the so-called “Windrush scandal” was published. The review identified serious failings in the government’s treatment of the Windrush generation, who settled in the UK as British nationals from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries before 1973 but who, along with some of their descendants, were later treated as if they had no permission to be in the UK. Although the government promised to act on the far-reaching recommendations of the review, the proposed changes failed to address the root causes of the scandal, including the racism embedded in nationality and immigration laws and policies.

Discrimination in the exercise of police powers continued to be a concern. Data on fines issued for non-compliance with the COVID-19 related lockdown revealed that Black and Asian people were disproportionately fined. In May, during the first national lockdown, police in London conducted a record number of stop and searches: 43,644, of which 10,000 targeted young Black men. Racial disproportionality specifically against Black people continued to feature heavily across various policing issues, including the use of force and of Taser. Police figures published in 2020 showed that Black people were up to eight times more likely to have Taser used against them than White people in 2018/19. High-profile cases of Taser use against Black people in London and Manchester, including one case in the presence of a child, highlighted this issue.

Freedom of assembly

In June, police used excessive force against Black Lives Matter protesters in London, including the confinement of people to a narrow space (“kettling”) and the use of horses to disperse crowds. Police issued approximately 70 infringements of COVID-19 restrictions to peaceful protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry and initiated criminal investigations against the organizers, relying on COVID-19 related enforcement powers that came into force on the eve of the protest. In December, the Northern Ireland Policing Board found policing of the protests to have been “potentially unlawful”, while the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland found it to have been “unfair” and “discriminatory”.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government failed to adequately modify immigration policies and practices to safeguard public health. People continued to be held in immigration detention for the purposes of removal from the UK, despite the heightened risk of infection in detention and obstacles to effecting removal. Asylum claims were required to be made in person.

Statutory exclusions or restrictions on access to employment, welfare, accommodation and health care for people subject to immigration control undermined their ability to protect themselves from the virus and maintain an adequate standard of living. The government resisted widespread calls to suspend the “no recourse to public funds” policy, which restricts access to benefits for many migrants, during the pandemic.

Parliament passed a new immigration law in November which granted exceptionally broad legislative powers to the Home Secretary and ended free movement rights under EU law. Children entitled to British citizenship continued to be prevented by government policy and practice from registering their entitlement. Children of EU nationals became particularly at risk because of their loss of free movement rights in the UK.

Right to housing

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government introduced some measures, albeit only short-term, to protect the right to housing. It suspended court proceedings for evictions in England and Wales from 27 March until 20 September and temporarily increased the minimum notice period prior to eviction for most tenants.

By September, 29,000 rough sleepers and other vulnerable people had been supported into accommodation during the pandemic, according to official figures. Homelessness charities reported a sharp increase in demand for their services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

In February, the first same-sex marriages took place in Northern Ireland after the success in 2019 of a long-running campaign for marriage equality. Religious same-sex marriages were permitted from September, and the conversion of existing civil partnerships was allowed from December.

Amid growing transphobic rhetoric and fear-mongering in the media, the government’s proposed amendments to the outdated Gender Recognition Act in England and Wales fell short of human rights standards. A second consultation to reform gender recognition law in Scotland ended in March.

Women’s rights

There was an increase in reported cases of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government lacked a fully coordinated plan to tackle the foreseeable risk of domestic violence during the pandemic and failed to provide sufficient and timely emergency funding for frontline services. None of the additional funding was ring-fenced for specialist services for ethnic minority women, despite an increase in referrals to these services. Migrant women whose immigration status excludes them from most government benefits faced compounded challenges in obtaining support for domestic violence.

The Domestic Abuse Bill lacked provisions to ensure safety and access to justice for migrant women. The bill did not meet the government’s stated intention of bringing domestic legislation in line with the Istanbul Convention, which the UK had yet to ratify.

The criminalization of sex work and denial of sex workers’ labour rights meant that they were particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and related measures. The government maintained a five-week waiting period for social security payments, despite previously acknowledging that it was a factor in some women resorting to sex work.

Sexual and reproductive rights

After the decriminalization of abortion in 2019, regulations governing the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland took effect on 31 March.

The government allowed both abortion pills to be taken at home during the COVID-19 pandemic in all regions of the UK except Northern Ireland, where a local temporary service providing early medical abortions began in April, allowing one abortion pill to be taken on health and social care premises, and the second one at home.

Whilst abortion services in Northern Ireland were legal and running to varying degrees, by year’s end the authorities had yet to formally commission abortion services that were adequately resourced, sustainable and fully accessible to all who need them.

Northern Ireland – legacy issues

In March, the government issued proposals to address the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland which were not compatible with human rights standards and departed from commitments made in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and subsequent government statements and agreements. The proposals would limit prosecutions of those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law and human rights violations and abuses during the decades-long conflict.

The government refused to launch a public inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane, a Belfast lawyer killed in 1989, despite a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, which found that his murder was not effectively investigated in line with human rights standards.

Irresponsible arms transfers

The UK resumed issuing licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia in July, after a court ruling in June 2019 required the government to suspend new licensing of military equipment to Saudi Arabia (see Yemen entry).

In response to the excessive use of force against US Black Lives Matter protesters, members of parliament and several organizations, including Amnesty International, called on the UK to suspend exports of crowd control equipment, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, to US law enforcement agencies. In September, the government stated that it had re-assessed export licences of such equipment to the USA in response to these events and concluded there was “no clear risk” of misuse.

State overreach

The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill proposed a major overhaul of the sentencing regime for counter-terrorism offences, including the removal of some key safeguards on the use of already concerning administrative control measures known as Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). The proposed changes included lowering the standard of proof for the imposition of a TPIM.

Impunity

In March, the government proposed a new law which would seriously restrict prosecutions for offences committed by British soldiers overseas, including torture and other ill-treatment as well as other crimes under international law. The proposed law would create a “presumption against prosecution” after five years.

Freedom of expression

Hearings to consider a US extradition request for Julian Assange began in February and resumed in September. Assange remained detained at Belmarsh prison and faced prosecution in the USA for the publication of disclosed documents as part of his work with Wikileaks. Amnesty International called on the USA to drop the charges and on the UK to halt his extradition to the USA where he would face a real risk of serious human rights violations.


  1. Exposed, silenced, attacked: Failures to protect health and essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic (POL 40/2572/2020)
  2. UK: As if expendable: The UK Government’s failure to protect older people in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic (EUR 45/3152/2020)

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