Ten questions on the next phase of the UK’s COVID-19 response
9. How will new measures take account of principles of respect and fair and equal treatment?
The manner in which public health interventions are introduced and managed is as ethically significant as what those interventions are. Even where it is justified to restrict people’s liberties, it must be done in a way that shows respect for them as individuals of equal moral worth.
As frustration around new measures has grown, so has a call for older and more vulnerable individuals to continue to self-isolate so that younger, healthier people can continue to live their lives - an approach described as “segmenting and shielding”. In his 22 September speech, the Prime Minister responded to this suggestion, noting the suffering that it would bring with it - “is just not realistic”. Aside from the practical problems of stopping the spread of the virus, such a proposal fails to treat people as individuals of equal moral worth: suggesting that some parts of society are less important than others, and should therefore be prepared to accept far greater burdens than others. Elements of this can be seen already in the approaches and policy taken with regard to visitors in care homes (with some dementia patients not having received visitors since March) or to family members being able to be with patients at the end of life. Campaigners are calling for changes to be made to these policies.
Another part of ensuring people are treated fairly and respectfully is providing them with clear and timely information about the development of the pandemic, and the measures being considered and implemented - underscoring again the central importance of transparency and trustworthiness in the pandemic response.