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Information commissioner has rejected government’s arguments documents should remain secret
The government has been ordered to publish its assessments on the impact of national lockdowns and Covid restrictions after resisting making them public, The Independent can reveal.

Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) officials drew up documents predicting how changing coronavirus rules would affect different groups but they have so far been kept secret.

The Liberty human rights group requested the equality impact assessments under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, but was refused and told releasing them would "not be in the public interest".

It accused the government of "evading scrutiny and undermining accountability" over its use of unprecedented restrictions.

The information commissioner has now ordered the government to publish the documents and rejected arguments that they should remain secret to "protect the policy process".

"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," said a decision notice seen by The Independent.

"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."

The decision means that equality impact assessments for every version of the Health Protection Regulations, which enforced lockdowns and other restrictions, and the Coronavirus Act must be made public by 30 November.

The documents will have established whether the laws had a disparate impact on people with different protected characteristics, which include race, religion, age and disability.

Liberty initially lodged an FOI request for the assessments in June 2020. The DHSC refused to release them in July that year, and then refused again following an internal review in October 2020.

Sam Grant, Liberty's head of policy and campaigns, said: "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.

Speaker accuses government of 'total disregard' for parliament after coronavirus rules changed

"But this government has shown time and time again that it will do anything to evade scrutiny and undermine accountability."

He said the laws had relaxed standards of care while allowing "discriminatory and dangerous policing".

Comment: Standards of care were 'relaxed' to such an extent that the most vulnerable were asked to sign Do Not Resuscitate forms and a lack of primary care is contributing to the early deaths of tens of thousands of people - many times more than will have died solely due to the coronavirus - and policing became so nonsensical and aggressive that a Lord and former judge compared the UK to a police state.

"The government side-lined our elected MPs by using emergency powers, even when it had months to prepare and ensure proper scrutiny was applied," Mr Grant added.

Comment: Less than a month ago MPs were given the option to vote for a 6 month extension of emergency powers and they didn't even bother to debate the issue, they just let it go ahead; as you can hear in the video below they seemed to find the whole issue rather amusing:

"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."

In submissions to the information commissioner, the DHSC said the equality impact assessments could be kept secret under an FOI exemption for ongoing policy development.

It added: "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 watchdog said the withheld assessments fed into 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 Health Protection Regulations were initially emergency legislation to enforce the first lockdown in March 2020, but had been changed more than 70 times by "freedom day" in July.

They were imposed using statutory instruments, meaning that MPs did not debate the laws before they came into force and could sometimes only scrutinise them after they had been changed.

The laws gave police the power to enforce unprecedented restrictions and have so far resulted in more than 700 wrongful prosecutions in England and Wales - a third of the total.

An unknown number of incorrect fines were also issued and in September, a parliamentary committee found that £10,000 penalties for organising banned "large gatherings" should not have been introduced.

The Justice Committee called for a review of all coronavirus fines, following widespread confusion over gaps between rapidly changing laws and non-binding government guidance.

Figures showed that black people were more likely to be handed Covid fines than white people, and concerns were raised about the disproportionate impact of restrictions on groups including disabled people and women suffering domestic abuse.

Restrictions under the Health Protection Regulations were lifted in July, but the Coronavirus Act remains in force.

It contains a range of practical changes, such as expanding remote court hearings, but also controversial measures allowing councils to relax care standards, the police to detain anyone "potentially infectious", and the government to delay elections.

The DHSC was approached for comment.