Documents were drawn up by officials from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) looking at how changing rules around Covid could impact different groups. However, they are yet to be made public. A request has been made by the Liberty human rights group under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to see the equality impact assessments, according to a report by The Independent. But they were told this request would be refused as releasing them would “not be in the public interest”.
The group lashed out the Government and accused it of “evading scrutiny and undermining accountability” over its use of unprecedented restrictions.
However, the Information Commissioner has now told the Government to publish the never-seen-before documents whilst rejecting arguments they should remain under wraps to “protect the policy process”.
A decision notice seen by The Independent states: “The Commissioner’s decision is that DHSC is not entitled to rely on section 35(1)(a) of the FOI Act – formulation or development of government policy – to withhold the requested information.
“The Commissioner acknowledges the massive restrictions imposed by the Health Protection Regulations and the impact on those with protected characteristics cannot be ignored.
“It is clear that the government was under a strong obligation to ensure that any measures introduced would not have a disproportionate impact on particular sections of the population.”
This now means that by November 30, equality impact assessments for every version of the Health Protection Regulations, which were used to impose various national lockdowns and wide-ranging Covid restrictions, must be made public.
These crucial documents will establish whether the numerous measures had a disparate affect on millions of people throughout the country with various different protected characteristics, which include race, religion, age and disability.
In June 2020, the Liberty human rights group had lodged an FOI request for the assessments but the DHSC refused to release them the following month, repeating the move after an internal review in October 2020.
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Sam Grant, the group’s head of policy and campaigns, argued: “It is critical that we can all trust the government to respect our rights and follow the law – especially at times of crisis, when it is so easy for our rights to be swept away.
“But this government has shown time and time again that it will do anything to evade scrutiny and undermine accountability.”
“The government side-lined our elected MPs by using emergency powers, even when it had months to prepare and ensure proper scrutiny was applied.”
“Arguing that it was against the public interest to release what it knew about these powers is an insult to all of us affected by them. It is high time the government accepted that – despite its own conduct – it is not above the law, and must not become untouchable.”
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The DHSC said in its submissions to the Information Commissioner the equality impact assessments could be kept under wraps under an FOI exemption for ongoing policy development.
The Government department said: “The government may need to take additional measures to manage the virus during periods of higher risk, such as a mandatory vaccine-only certification policy and legally mandating face coverings in certain settings.”
But the Information Commissioner’s Office argued the assessments are closely linked to past laws and it was “difficult to see how these will affect future policy making”, adding: “The Commissioner considers that the public interest rests in favour of disclosing the withheld information.”
The first lockdown at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 was enforced with the use of the Health Protection Regulations, but they were changed more than 70 times by “freedom day” that following July.
They were imposed using statutory instruments, which meant MPs did not debate the laws in the House of Commons before they were enforced.
It saw police given powers to impose wide-ranging restrictions.
Also, in September, a parliamentary committee found £10,000 fines for organising banned “large gatherings” should not have been introduced.
This saw the Justice Committee quickly call for a review of all Covid penalties, amid increasing confusion over gaps between changing laws and non-binding government guidance.
Express.co.uk has contacted the DHSC for comment.