Lockdowns and Rights

19th April 2020

The government is surprised by the positive response of people in the United Kingdom to the request to stay at home and protect the National Health Service. That their expectations were not as high as the response is not surprising since freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, recognised by the United Nations. But in this case, it is clearly being held in balance against the right to life, which comes number one in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While UK citizens are on the whole proving to be remarkably compliant, restricting freedom of movement in the long term is not a sustainable option. In the United States, where citizens are more suspicious of central government than in the UK, people were quick to express hostility to lockdowns.

In week three of the United Kingdom’s lockdown, anxiety was being expressed at the government’s reluctance to talk about how the restrictions on movement would be lifted. Understandably, Health Secretary Matt Hancock wanted to keep the focus on the observing the  restrictions because he needed more evidence of a significant fall in the number of  Corona Virus cases, before raising people’s hopes of being able to regain all their rights of movement.

The reality is that time has never been in plentiful supply for the government. You can only sustain a lockdown for a very limited period of time.

Few would argue that the moto “Do No Harm” is not a bad mantra to live by. Nobody wants to spread the virus. Accepting a lock down while a pathway through the pandemic was mapped, won widespread support. However, it is now understood that “Do No Harm” is not sustainable in a pandemic.  

The postponement of elective surgery causes continued suffering for many patients, who would otherwise have had their pain relieved. The suspension of screening for cancers and other life-threatening conditions, significantly increases the risk of delays in diagnosis and life-saving treatments. Despite government support to many businesses, the inability of many people to get to work and earn money means that poverty will increase and there is a direct correlation between poverty, ill health and reduced life expectancy. So, there will be a cost to lock down which will eventually be weighed against the benefit in lives saved for potential corona virus victims. The longer the lockdown, the greater the risk of inadvertent harm.

Any lifting of a lock down must be gradual. It will need to be combined with new ways to monitor the virus, how it is treated and prevented. But speed and good communications are of the essence if compliance is to be sustained.  

The support for the NHS and the concern shown for neighbours and the vulnerable are to be admired and commended. But a government cannot impose a 6 – 10 week lock down and take away people’s right of movement, unless there is a general belief that we will get much better at reacting to these kind of outbreaks.

A major lock down should be a once in a generation event. Do it more often and good will and support for the government will evaporate.

Any restrictions in the future, should not need to last as long and should not be so invasive of people’s rights.

Globalisation has brought many benefits, which we do not want to lose, but plans and procedures need to be put in place so that power, water and supplies of equipment that are essential to life  remain available, even when international supply routes are interrupted.

People have to be able to continue to work. The economy has to remain sustainable in such scenarios when they recur. A clearer national strategy is needed to sustain business and essential services, like utilities and defence, when pandemics strike. We need to make adjustments now to avoid unnecessarily violating people’s rights to life, work and freedom of movement – rights which of course include freedom of thought and expression.

President Barak Obama gave a clear lead on this in in 2009. More should have listened to him and in May 2018 President Trump should not have disbanded the National Security Council directorate which was tasked with preparing for pandemics.

Being ready to react to the next pandemic will be the subject of review and enquiry when this outbreak is over. Getting that review right and ensuring a broad consensus on the outcome will ensure the next pandemic does less to infringe people’s rights than this one has.


Jerry Timmins

Managing Director GMT Media Ltd 

Protests in the USA against the lockdown