Human Rights Evaluation of UK Government’s response to COVID-19 Outbreak

Human Rights Evaluation of UK Government’s response to COVID-19 Outbreak


On 13th of March 2020, the World Health Organisation (henceforth WHO) declared the outbreak of the COVID-19 (also known as coronavirus) a worldwide pandemic. After the initial reported cluster area in the region of Wuhan and a rapid spread throughout the neighbouring regions, coronavirus was firstly reported in the northern Italian regions of Codogno, Lombardy.Chinese government has been reported to be censoring information about the virus and its management in the area, but ultimately, after the first cases in Italy, Italy decided to close all connections to China.

The virus spread quickly throughout the Italian soil, and the government decided to take measures of quarantine and self-isolation, initially in the North of the country, and lately throughout the territory. It was with no delay that all European Union (henceforth EU) countries decided to cut connections with the Northern regions of Italy, and the same applied to the US, with remarkable actions from the government to contain the virus before its full spread.

It is widely reported, throughout the news and official WHO documents, that the widespread approach governments should take is of imposed quarantine, self-isolation and closure of non-necessary public and private activities, with State assistance for the stop of whole countries’ economies.

However, it is with great surprise that recent declarations from Prime Minister Mr Boris Johnson totally drifted apart from such approach. He shockingly asked the UK population to be prepared to “lose dear ones,” as the economy would not be allowed to be slowed down because of the virus and all activities are to continue as usual.

Arguably, his justifications of such approach is in a long term outlook at future virus waves in the winter. UK government’s approach is to let the virus spread, so that allegedly the strongest ones in the population will have antibodies to go through a second wave of the virus in the upcoming winter, so that the National Health Service (henceforth NHS), will not be under too much pressure.

This article is asking an evaluation of such approach in light of the undeniable responsibility of the UK government to guarantee the right to life to UK citizens and residents, as stated in Article 3 and Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, henceforth UDHR; as well as in Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, henceforth ECHR, which still applies to the UK despite the latest vote to leave the EU.

Responsibility of the UK Government Over the Lives of its Citizens and UK Residents

All High Contracting Parties of the United Nations, have the duty to respect and protect the Human Rights of all citizens under their jurisdiction and authority, which are protected by the UDHR. This applies to all articles. For the purpose of this case, I will focus on:

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 25

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

As still High Contracting Party of the EU, the UK is still required to also comply with all treaties, conventions, and other legally binding declarations and documents signed as EU Member State (henceforth MS). This includes the ECHR. For the purpose of this case, I will focus on:

Article 2

Everyone’s  right  to  life  shall  be  protected  by  law.  No  one  shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.

It is with no doubt stated multiple times in two of the highest pieces of international regulation that Sovereign States have a responsibility to guarantee life in the healthiest conditions as possible to every person under their authority and jurisdiction.

In order to establish a possible liability of the UK government over the deaths occurred due to the coronavirus outbreak, it will need to be established whether:

  1. The UK government is complying with the aforementioned regulation

This will be established through an evaluation of the UK governmental action in light of the most recent and up-to-date WHO recommendations.

WHO Reports and Recommendations to Governments

It is since the 11th of March, 2020, that the WHO declared a world pandemic due to the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, daily updates are demanded from all countries, in order to monitor the virus spreading and planning and acting as swiftly as possible to fight it and contain it.

As early as the 13th of March, 2020, the WHO openly asks governments to take “all necessary actions” to contain the virus and delay its spread. They anticipated that ‘a high volume of cases will put staff, facilities and supplies under pressure’, and suggested actions to delay the virus so to have more time to cure severe cases. Among their suggestions, as reported in Picture 1, there is an evaluation of the implementation of case management procedures. According to WHO, this should be done taking into consideration health system capacity and training WHO and other experts suggestions, in order to I) identify main gaps II) perform risk assessments and III) plan for additional investigations, response and control actions.

Image 1. Available at:

UK Response in Accordance with WHO Guidelines

Most countries in the European area started closing up commercial activities and not necessary public facilities, first of all Italy, having the most cases. They also started suggesting and legally imposing social distancing and self-isolation in order to delay the spread of the virus as suggested by WHO, so to have a better chance that health systems can deal with the majority of cases in need of intensive therapy as possible.

WHO is asking all governments to send daily reports of all new cases and deaths from coronavirus. UK is one of the countries that, although not having reached the highest number in cases yet, had the highest escalation of cases since WHO declared world pandemic. This is still visible on WHO situation reports, as reported below, despite the lack of UK compliance with WHO recommendation of testing as much as possible.

It is of course understandable that start testing overnight is terribly expensive, but the  effort in resources and money needed to guarantee safety and good practice for the NHS is lacking, resulting in the widely reported loss of 3.5 million unusable testing kits. Although the spiking escalation of the spread of the virus is clearly visible, numbers of cases simply don’t add up to the average percentage of cases over population of all other countries in which testing has been reported to be more accurate. It is until the situation report of the 5th of April, that the UK had reported cases more similar in numbers to those of Switzerland, having a tenth of the UK population, that those of France, much more similar in number to the UK population.

My expertise does not lay in the medical field and I cannot speculate to a full extent on the possibility of this being an accurate figure. I therefore ask academics with more expertise than mine to look into this possibility, noting that all countries having a population of 60 million people or more reported a much closer number of cases to each other, leaving the UK as the only standalone case of such populated country with such few cases.

  • Situation report from 23rd of March 2020, reported UK as the 6th most infected country of the European area, with 5687 cases, 669 of which were new. There were so far 281 deaths, 48 of which were new from the latest report.
  • Situation report from 30th of March 2020, reported UK as the 5th most infected country of the European area, with 19526 cases, 4 times higher than the week before. There were so far 1228 deaths, six times higher than the week before, with an escalation of 209 new deaths from the previous report, four times higher than the previous week.
  • Situation report from 5th of April 2020, marked UK as the 5th most infected country of the European area, with 41907 cases, more than double than the week before. There were so far 4313 deaths, four times higher than the week before, with an escalation of 708 new deaths from the previous report, three times higher than the previous week.
  • Situation report from 12th of April 2020, marked UK as the 5th most infected country of the European area, with 78995 cases, almost double than the week before. There were so far 9875 deaths, double than the week before, with an escalation of 917 new deaths from the previous report, 209 more than the previous week.

As it is evident from these numbers, cases are simply escalating as 1) the virus is actually spreading, 2) time passes and symptoms begin to show, and 3) testing increases.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson acquired notoriety since his first declarations regarding coronavirus. After WHO declared world pandemic he declared that UK economy was his top priority, that all business would continue as usual and that British families should ‘be prepared to lose dear ones’. His declarations were reflected in The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, in which various phases of the management of the virus are stated. So far, although the risk level for the UK has been raised to ‘high’, phase two of the regulations was not yet implemented.

An example could be seen in the management of the schooling system. Universities all over the UK started implementing e-learning and closed down campuses. However, these decisions have not been suggested by the government. Although phase two of The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 contains a section for the plan for continuity of learning that suggests a management of learning with closed down schools, the government merely suggested that the public should avoid large gatherings.

What is interesting, however, is that even when phase two of the regulation was implemented, section 4.45 only ‘considers’ closures and social distancing, practices already legally imposed in other countries for the management of the spread of the virus:

‘Action that would be considered could include population distancing strategies (such as school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large scale gatherings) to slow the spread of the disease throughout the population, whilst ensuring the country’s ability to continue to run as normally as possible. The UK governments’ education departments’ planning assumptions include the possibility of having to close educational settings in order to reduce the spread of infection’

As of today, 13th of April, 2020, UK government, following Mr Johnson’s review of his standpoint, is taking measures aligning with those of other countries and getting closer to WHO recommendations. However, much of the control of social distancing is left on the population, with few controls on how much the suggested measures are being respected. Moreover, the unjustifiable delay in these actions, needs to be evaluated in terms of responsibility of UK government over the numbers of deaths resulting from COVID-19 outbreak.

Arguments for the Evaluation of the Validity of UK Response to WHO Recommendations

It has so far been argued that the liability of the British government over the increasing deaths lays in their dismissal of WHO recommendations, therefore breaching both Article 3 of the UDHR and Article 2 of the ECHR concerning the right to life.

ECHR, contains a derogation of the liability of States for the Convention’s rights, but it is specified in Article 15 that there is ‘no derogation from Article 2’. Therefore, States are, with no exception, guarantors of their citizens’ lives.

Although the Convention also covers rights regarding the economic status of States and their liability over the standards of living of their populations, it is also stated in Article 17 of the Convention, and in Article 30 of the UDHR, that no right can be used if it implies the destruction of any other right stated in the Convention.

Under such obligations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had no right to state that the economy of UK would be top priority over the lives of those who had to be prepared to ‘lose dear ones’.

Under Article 13 of the Declaration, all citizens have a right to an effective remedy:

‘Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in this Convention are  violated  shall  have  an  effective  remedy  before  a  national  authority  notwithstanding  that  the  violation  has  been  committed  by persons acting in an official capacity’

Final Proposition

In conclusion, in light of all current UK legislation and international regulations, and in light of the arguments brought forward, this article is asking an evaluation of UK government’s decisions and actions in regards with the management of the spread of COVID-19, and the deaths resulting from such practices.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Post by: Ilaria Aversa, MSc


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