A coalition of charities and human rights groups is calling on MPs to scrap a piece of emergency coronavirus legislation that has allowed ministers to impose dramatic restrictions on individuals’ liberties without debate in parliament.
Boris Johnson must win a vote in the Commons on Wednesday to preserve the Coronavirus Act, which was rushed through in a single day at the start of lockdown on 23 March but must be renewed every six months to remain in effect.
He is already facing potential defeat at the hands of Tory rebels, 42 of whom have backed an amendment that would force him to hold a parliamentary debate and vote before imposing any new restrictions, such as curfews, lockdowns or limits on social contact.
Now groups including Liberty, Black Lives Matter UK, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Traveller Movement and Big Brother Watch have demanded that the act be scrapped altogether.
The groups – representing causes ranging from civil liberties to disability rights, race equality, migrants’ rights, Gypsy and Roma Traveller advocacy, mental health, policing and homelessness – warned that the legislation has had a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities and vulnerable people.
In a joint statement, they described it as “a lasting threat to our human rights as long as it remains on the statute books”.
The director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier, said: “MPs had barely any time to scrutinise the Coronavirus Act when it was introduced. They’ve had six months to watch the failure of using a criminal justice response to a public health crisis and the cruelty of how the act abandons the most marginalised when their rights need to be upheld.
“The act epitomises the government’s determination to prioritise criminal justice over public health, and its disregard for our rights. Renewing the act now would consolidate this power grab, putting our rights at even greater risk in the long term.
“It is time for parliament to repeal the Coronavirus Act and create a strategy that protects our rights, as well as our health.”
Liberty pointed to the admission from the Crown Prosecution Service that dozens of people had been wrongly charged by police under the act, with all 44 detentions of "suspected infectious persons” between March and May found to be incorrect.
And the civil liberties campaign said that its own research found that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) backgrounds were 54 per cent more likely to be given fixed penalty notice fines than white people – with one police force issuing almost seven times as many fines to Bame people given their proportion of the local population.
The 329 pages of legislation created substantial powers to detain any person who might be infectious, to close borders and postpone elections, and to suspend human rights safeguards in a range of settings, from the surveillance regime to care homes, said Liberty, which has been campaigning for the act’s repeal since its introduction.
The act “not only created an unprecedented reimagining of state powers, it has also watered down laws that protect our human rights”, they said.
Some 76 per cent of people in a recent poll agreed that human rights should be protected during a national crisis.
As MPs prepare to vote on Wednesday, the joint statement signed by 22 organisations, urged them to “scrap the act and … instead focus on a response to the pandemic which protects everyone’s human rights and keeps civil liberties intact”.
The statement said: “In times of crisis, governments can either tap into public spirit and connect communities or increase state powers and use coercive methods that foster ill-will and blame.
“Faced with this choice, the government opted for a criminal justice response to a public health crisis, prioritising immigration control over saving lives, and rushing through an act of parliament that strips away our rights.”
Signatories include: Liberty; Another Night of Sisterhood; Big Brother Watch; Black Lives Matter UK; Black Protest Legal Support UK; British Institute of Human Rights; Centre for Mental Health; Inquest; Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants; Justice; London Campaign Against Police and State Violence; Maslaha; Museum of Homelessness; National Survivor User Network; Netpol; Northern Police Monitoring Project; Release; Rights and Security International; Runnymede Trust; Streets Kitchen; StopWatch; The Traveller Movement.