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From right to life to right to health: recommendations for the Government’s response to COVID-19

Also contributing to this opinion piece were: Sharifah Sekalala, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick; Judith Bueno de Mesquita, Co-Deputy Director at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex; Claire Lougarre, Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Health Ethics and Law at the University of Southampton; and Michel Coleman, Professor of Epidemiology and Vital Statistics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Parliaments over the world are a pivotal expression of democratic societies and provide opportunities to hold Governments to account. They allow us, citizens, to participate through direct representation in drawing up the policies that shape our lives.

In the UK, inquiries conducted by the various Parliamentary Committees provide opportunities for direct civil engagement, as well as accountability, through their reviews of Government performance. In March 2020, the Human Rights Joint Committee opened an inquiry, issuing a call for evidence on the human rights implications of the Government’s response to COVID-19.

The impact of COVID-19 on human rights, and the role that human rights can play in an effective response to COVID-19, have been the subject of comments from all over the world, not just by scholars in economic and social rights, but also by public health experts, international organisations, international human rights mechanisms, and the media.

In July, experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine collaborated with experts at Essex University, Southampton Law School and Warwick University to submit a joint document of evidence on the Government’s response to COVID-19 and the right to health.

In their submission to the inquiry, Judith Bueno de Mesquita, Claire Lougarre, Lisa Montel and Sharifah Sekalala recall that the UK is a State party to international human rights treaties that protect the right to health. As such, the UK is bound by obligations that it must realise in order to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health for everyone, regardless of sex, age, race, gender, socio-economic status or citizenship.

They outline key obligations, derived from the international legal framework on the right to health, that bind the UK on areas such as the protection of vulnerable groups:

  • emergency preparedness and infection control
  • provision of essential medical goods and personal protective equipment
  • testing and tracing strategies
  • adoption of national and local lockdowns
  • research for and distribution of vaccines
  • right to access health services for other serious health conditions, such as cancer
  • provision of long-term COVID-19 care
  • international cooperation and State’s accountability

The authors have also prepared a policy brief, derived from their submission to the inquiry, which includes a list of key recommendations that the UK Government should now follow in its response to the pandemic, in order to comply with obligations on the human right to health.

The Human Rights Joint Committee published its report on the human rights implications of the Government’s response to COVID-19 on 21 September 2020. It is arguable whether the right to health is recognised, because the report itself is framed in terms of civil and political rights – such as the right to life – which are binding under UK law, pursuant to the Human Rights Act 1998.

Nevertheless, the report offers recommendations to promote the right to health during the current public health crisis. For instance, the Committee raises concerns about the fact that admission to hospital, and in particular critical care, has discriminated against older and disabled people. It further highlights reductions in the provision of health care for some individuals and calls on the Government to justify such reasoning.

Most importantly, the Committee expresses its deepest concern over the extremely high number of deaths from COVID-19 in care homes. Final recommendations call for a quick, interim review of COVID-19 deaths in advance of the second wave of infections this winter; and a public inquiry at a later stage, to investigate structural issues that may have generated avoidable COVID-19 deaths among health and social care workers, transport workers, police and security guards, and in care homes and detention centres.

The evidence reminds us that the right to health is not just a collection of principles of social justice: it is a human right, enshrined in international law, which creates obligations that are legally binding on States that have ratified relevant treaties.

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars on economic and social rights are seizing the opportunity to place the right to health at the forefront of debates. We call on experts from all disciplines in the public health community to do the same.

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