21 September 2020

Parliament’s Human Rights Committee have today called for Government to undertake some form of ‘swift lessons-learned review’ to fulfil its human rights obligations and prevent future unnecessary deaths relating to COVID-19, noting it is ‘very likely a public inquiry will be needed’. The Committee also call for changes to protect people in prisons and detention from continued inhumane conditions, and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups from disproportionate policing as a result of the pandemic.

With written evidence from INQUEST and a range of organisations, the full report of their inquiry The Government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implications has been published. The broad ranging inquiry by UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights highlights a number of key issues with the response to the pandemic, including in policing, prisons and mental health detention, and learning from deaths.

With expertise on state related deaths and their investigation, INQUEST has been actively campaigning on issues around COVID-19. Alongside bereaved families and their lawyers, we are calling for the government to announce a public inquiry which will fulfil the state’s duty to investigate deaths under Article 2 (The Right to Life). This should include an interim report to identify issues that need to be addressed immediately. A petition by bereaved families calling for the government to open a public inquiry has almost 200,000 signatures.

Importantly, the cross-party Committee concluded that it is ‘very likely’ that a public inquiry will be needed in order to fulfil the State’s obligations under Article 2. We welcome their recommendation that any inquiry must consider, at least, deaths in detention settings; deaths of healthcare and care workers and the availability of PPE; deaths in care homes due to early releases from hospitals; and deaths of transport workers, police and security guards due to inadequate PPE. We also support their conclusion that for an inquiry is to be effective in learning lessons in time to save lives, it would ideally have clear, focussed objectives and be time-limited.

We welcome the committee’s recognition of the significant human rights implications of the restrictive lockdown regimes that were introduced in adult and child prisons. The Committee acknowledges that these conditions amount to solitary confinement and could breach the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, points INQUEST raised in our submission. INQUEST also noted concerns about the unsanitary and dangerously restrictive conditions in prisons during the pandemic. HM Inspectorate of Prisons report that the easing of severe restrictions in many adult and child prisons continues to be too slow.

With a likely second wave of the pandemic on the horizon, we join the Committee’s call for greater scrutiny of places of detention and urge those planning for the effects of a second wave in detention to ensure that measures to reduce the prison population are on the table. The Committee’s conclusions make clear that that repeating the same approach for a second time will not be good enough.

The Committee also highlighted serious concern around the disproportionate impact of policing decisions on young men from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. They concluded that the government must learn from the lessons of this period of lockdown to avoid the worst elements of disproportionality before any further local or national lockdowns.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “The government remains reluctant to answer difficult questions about its approach to the pandemic so far, or set up any form of review or inquiry. This is a dangerous approach which, if continued, misses the opportunity to learn important lessons which could save lives and better protect human rights.

We welcome the call for swift learning which underlines the need for a public inquiry with an immediate and focussed interim review phase. Alongside many bereaved families, INQUEST believes this is the most effective way of making swift changes, scrutinising deaths and broader issues, and fulfilling the governments obligations under Article 2 - the right to life.

Questions which remain unanswered include how the government will protect the safety and rights of people in detention, many of whom - the committee confirm - have already been subject to solitary confinement. As a second wave appears imminent, the public need to see an urgent plan of action for protecting those in prisons and mental health detention.”


For further information, interview requests and to note your interest, please contact INQUEST Communications Team: [email protected]; [email protected]

For more information see the committee’s inquiry webpage: The Government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implications and media release on this report.

Also see INQUEST’s written evidence to the inquiry, and COVID-19 campaign page, as well as Information for families bereaved by COVID-19

Public inquiry into COVID-19

  • INQUEST remain concerned that inquests are not being opened into COVID-related deaths and that a public inquiry is the most effective way of ensuring that legitimate questions about whether a death could and should have been prevented are properly scrutinised.
  • Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK also argues there is “a compelling need to set up the inquiry immediately”, to consider the best measures necessary to “minimise the ongoing effects of the virus”. At time of writing, their petition to open a public inquiry has 198,000 signatures.

COVID-19 and inquests/the coronial system

  • The Committee note that in absence of any imminent inquiry into Covid-19 deaths, inquests will be the principal means of discharging the UK’s procedural duties under Article 2. They said coronial courts will have to progress as best as they can all matters requiring a procedural Article 2 investigation in a given case.
  • However, the most urgent of the procedural obligations in the Covid-19 context is to ensure that lessons are being learned as soon as possible so as to avoid unnecessary deaths. The Committee therefore note that it is crucial that some form of swift lessons learned review is undertaken as soon as feasible.
  • INQUEST note that after understandable delays relating to the pandemic, since the start of September some inquests have begun to be heard. However, this has perpetuated an existing backlog in inquest hearings and added to long delays, particularly for jury inquests. There is urgent need to better resource the coronial system and ensure proper, human rights compliant inquests are being held.
  • In May, INQUEST wrote to the Chief Coroner following his guidanceon COVID-19 deaths and possible exposure in the workplace. INQUEST and members of our INQUEST Lawyers Group are concerned that the guidance advises that inquests are not the place to discuss, for example, the adequacy of policies and arrangements for the provision of PPE.

COVID-19 in prison and immigration detention

  • HM Prison and Probation Service report that up to 31 August 2020:
  • COVID-19 was the suspected cause in the deaths of 44 people, of whom 23 were in prison and 21 were probation service users. INQUEST are also aware of at least 48 self-inflicted deaths in the period, and levels of reported self-harm continue to break records.
  • 560 people in prison tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The number of new monthly confirmed cases has increased by 20 since July 2020.
  • Only 315 prisoners have been released under COVID-19 temporary release schemes, 53 of which were compassionate releases, despite widely supported calls for much broader releases of the 79,263 people in prison (Sept 2020)
  • In August, HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that continued severe COVID-19 regime restrictions risk psychological decline in prisoners, with examples of unacceptable conditions, and slow progress on the easing of extreme restrictions in many establishments. They said If there were to be a resurgence of the virus, “other means of controlling its spread that would not carry such a high risk of causing long-term harm to those in custody, and which would not risk them being held in conditions that meet widely agreed definitions of solitary confinement, should be explored.”
  • In Immigration Detention, close to 1,000 people were released due to the pandemic, following legal action by Detention Action, mostly back to their families in the UK or to approved accommodation.
  • The Home Office reported in May 2020, there were 313 people detained in the detention estate – 97% of whom were foreign national offenders (FNOs). This compares to 1,278 at the end of December 2019 and 555 at the end of March 2020. This does not include the number of immigration detainees in prison, information on which has not been published since March.

COVID-19 in mental health detention

  • The Care Quality Commission report that, from 1 March to 4 September 2020, they have been notified of 94 deaths in mental health settings which were suspected or confirmed to be related to COVID-19. A further three COVID-19 related deaths of detained patients were reported by other non-mental health providers.
  • The CQC have also identified 13 detained patients whose deaths have been notified to us from 1 March to 4 September 2020 who had a learning disability and/or were autistic. The majority were not identified as related to confirmed or suspected COVID-19