Human Rights and Covid-19

7 Jan 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Jan 2021

Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby
Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby

The NI Human Rights Commissioner’s latest Annual Statement looks at 2020, the pandemic, and any progress – or not – in the wider rights picture for NI, where children appear to be second-class citizens.


Last year questions about human rights ran on parallel tracks.

Covid-19 led to the most severe restrictions placed on people by their governments, on a global scale, in living memory. In one sense, the entirety of the response to the pandemic has been about balancing rights.

At the same time, Northern Ireland – like everywhere else – had plenty of ongoing concerns about rights before the word coronavirus smashed its way into everyone’s vocabulary.

As it does every year, the NI Human Rights Commission published its annual statement in December. Much of the report is in the usual format – an attempt to characterise all significant human rights concerns in NI.

And, 2020 having been 2020, the report also looks at human rights in the Covid-19 context.

Liberties have been curtailed in an effort to keep a lid on infection. For long stretches people have not been able to see loved ones, to work, or even simply go outside.

However, NIHRC is less concerned with the general measures placed on the population than the impact of specific measures on specific groups. This is understandable. If you cannot go for a cup of tea or a scone in your favourite café, that is annoying – but it simply does not compare with a cared-for person, or their carer, no longer able to access outside support and no longer able to leave their home.


Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby writes in his introduction to the report: “Governments in London, Belfast and Dublin have taken unparalleled powers and sweeping measures, unheard of in peace times. Long-cherished freedoms have been curtailed: to see our families and friends, to move more freely, open and run businesses, attend workplaces and engage in social and civic activities.”

The paper looks at the temporary (capped at two years) powers enabled by the Coronavirus Act passed in Westminster on March 25, as well as a slew of supporting legislation enacted at the NI Assembly.

In general, these measures, despite being onerous, that been compatible with human rights law. As the report says: “Certain rights can be restricted during a public emergency…  severe restrictions of basic rights are allowed as long as the restrictions are necessary, proportionate, have a legitimate aim and are only used for as long as required to meet that aim.”

NIHRC’s paper takes a factual look at many of the restrictions faced by specific groups as a result of measures to tackle Covid-19. These include the unequal impact of Covid-19 on people with disabilities; a lack of childcare; increased pressures on carers; child poverty; homelessness; issues with education (including academic selection and SEN); a lack of action on support for termination of pregnancy; and also amendments to the Mental Capacity Act to tailor it to pandemic circumstances.

Northern Ireland’s spike in domestic abuse and violence is also considered. “In June 2020, the Police Service NI reported that it received on average 570 domestic violence calls per week between February 2019 and March 2020. However, between 8 April 2020 and 30 June 2020 the average number of calls per week was consistently above 600, with a spike of 721 calls at mid-April 2020 and 727 at the start of June 2020.”

However, perhaps the bulk of the issues concern problems faced by people in care homes.

“Around half of COVID-19 related deaths to date involved care home residents, either in the care home or in hospitals. Indications are that the high numbers of deaths within care homes may be linked to the slow introduction of testing within such settings, discharging patients to care homes without those individuals being tested for COVID-19, the late arrival of Personal Protective Equipment, the delay in including care home deaths in COVID-19 statistics to enable an understanding of the issue, and the relative under funding and general neglect of the care home sector…

“In September 2020, it was reported that the Health and Social Care Trusts in NI had discharged patients to care homes without those individuals being tested for COVID-19. Almost 70 patients confirmed as having or suffering potential symptoms of the virus were discharged from hospitals to care homes in one health trust. Between 1 March and 15 April 2020, 318 patients were discharged to care homes, of which only 52 were tested for COVID-19 prior to discharge.”

Another issue outlined was the stop placed on RQIA inspections of care homes, which led to the resignation of the RQIA’s entire nine-person board in June. Reductions and even cessations of visits to care homes were also looked at in detail.

Everything else

What about the wider context? Much of the rest of the paper is an effort to grade progress on rights in Northern Ireland. This is done by identifying a number of themes. Within each theme, a number of specific areas are identified.

Each area is graded on a traffic light system: green means a firm effort has been made to make progress where action is required; amber means the need for action has been acknowledged by government and some initial steps may have been taken; red identifies a subject needing immediate redress by government and may involve ongoing abuses or violations of human rights in NI.

The NIHRC report itself is, as usual, very accessible and worth a read for anyone interested in human rights in Northern Ireland.

However, the quick version is this: the report considered rights issues under 14 themes, which are similar (but obviously not identical) to the 18 articles in the European Convention on Human Rights. Under each theme is a varying number of specific areas of interest.

Equality and non-discrimination has 12 areas, with one being green (equal marriage and civil partnerships) and the rest amber. Right to life has four areas of which two are amber and two (conflict-related investigations, and legacy inquests and inquiries) are red. Right to liberty and security of the person has seven areas, which are all amber except the remand of children, which is red.

Freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment has 13 areas (all amber, except physical punishment of children, which is red). Freedom from slavery has four areas, of which one is amber and the remaining three red (child, early and forced marriage; child sexual exploitation; children missing from care). Right to fair trial and the administration of justice has four amber lights, and two that are red (age of criminal responsibility; compensation for a miscarriage of justice). Right to private and family life has seven ambers and one red (access to financial support for unmarried couples).

Freedom of religion and belief, expression, association and right to participate in public and political life has five amber lights, the right to work and to just and favourable conditions of work has four. Right to an adequate standard of living and to social security has nine amber lights and one red (anti-poverty strategy). Right to health has six amber lights and two that are red (implementation of legislative reform on termination of pregnancy; relationship, sexuality and gender identity education).

The final three themes are amber in every area: right to education (six amber lights), right to participate in the cultural life of the community (one), and constitutional protections (five).

Perhaps the most immediate observation to make about this picture is the lack of green lights. One, in total, from 93 areas. At the same time, 13 are red.

However, a closer look reveals something else. Of the 13 red lights, seven are explicitly about children. Not just children as well – obviously the absence of an anti-poverty strategy, for instance, affects children as well as adults – but children only.

What does that say about Northern Ireland? Can it be explained or excused by the pandemic? The answer to that second question is a simple no. The answer to the first is more complicated, if not any less blunt.

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