Lockdown measures infringe human rights, says UK justice secretary Buckland insists measures are needed, but plans for a contact-tracing app increase concerns over civil liberties While there has been broad cross-party and public support for lockdown measures, MPs and civil liberties groups have said they grant the police excessive powers
The UK response to coronavirus represents a necessary “infringement” of human rights, the justice secretary has said, despite concerns that the emergency measures threaten to harm civil liberties in the longer term. Robert Buckland, who heads the Ministry of Justice as Lord Chancellor, told the parliamentary select committee for human rights that the “very nature of the measures” needed to stop coronavirus was curtailing rights — but argued that in doing so they upheld the right to life. His comments on Monday came as the UK entered its second month of lockdown, backed up by new legislation that gives the government powers to close businesses and prevent people from leaving their homes. Plans for further measures to stop the spread of the virus include the rollout of a government contact-tracing app, which could offer a way out of lockdown while raising questions about online surveillance.
“We have to readily acknowledge that in this time of emergency the legislation does represent a change, a diminution . . . an infringement, if you like, with regard to human rights as we know them,” Mr Buckland said.
Recommended Technology sector Contact-tracing apps must not be used for mass surveillance, warn experts After accepting a curtailment of rights, the “next question” should be what measures were “absolutely necessary and proportionate” to preserve life while respecting the rule of law. He told the online meeting of the select committee that current government measures struck the right balance. While there has been broad cross-party and public support for lockdown measures, MPs and civil liberties groups have said they grant the police excessive powers and their impact could disproportionately be felt by more marginalised groups.
Leading the committee’s questions to Mr Buckland, chair Harriet Harman said the “raft” of new criminal offences brought by emergency legislation, which include leaving home or gathering in groups of more than two subject to particular exceptions, constituted “major restrictions to human rights”. Select committee member Joanna Cherry, a lawyer and QC, also raised concerns about a contact tracing app, which she said involved a degree of surveillance that would require new legislation to protect civil liberties and privacy. Robert Buckland: ‘We have to readily acknowledge that in this time of emergency the legislation does represent a change, a diminution . . . an infringement, if you like, with regard to human rights as we know them’ © Parliamentlive.tv Mr Buckland said he would “not rule out” introducing primary legislation to protect civil liberties, but said this would probably not be necessary if the app worked on the “principle of informed consent”.
He said ministers needed to “reassure the public” that the app would “not have unforeseen consequences for them or indeed for the rest of our society”. Clare Collier, director of advocacy at Liberty, said separately on Monday that legislation “ushered in” in response to coronavirus was “the biggest threat to civil liberties in a lifetime”. “Any state surveillance introduced in response to the pandemic will have severe implications for our privacy and our relationship with the state, both in the current crisis, and potentially in the long-term,” she said.