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What have the Covid restrictions meant for human rights, democracy, trust and policing?

  • 06 July 2021
  • 29 min listen

This episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth explores what the Coronavirus pandemic restrictions have meant for human rights, democracy, trust and policing. We hear how narratives of control have played out in government policies and ask what this means for democracy here in the UK.

Professor Leila Choukroune and Dr Sarah Charman discuss the issues that have come with police enforcement of temporary legislation, and the confusion that can arise from rapidly introduced measures and guidelines. Sarah’s work looks at the impact of the pandemic upon both police and the public and she shares some of her latest research insights.

We also explore the worrying surge in hate crime reported throughout the pandemic.

Dr Lisa Sugiura and Dr Jemma Tyson have a conversation about the new legislation and regulation being debated to try and curb online and offline hate.

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Episode transcript:

John Worsey: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. I'm John Worsey, and in this series, we're hearing from researchers about their thoughts and ideas on how life is changing long term as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This time, we're looking at how democracy has faced increasing pressure in the face of pandemic control measures introduced by governments around the world. We'll be finding out what sort of narratives and questions are being discussed in order to future proof human rights in the face of temporary legislation and rules. And here in the U.K., we'll be asking what the impact has been on the relationship between public and police as a result of enforcement. We'll also be looking at the rise in hate crime, both online and offline during the pandemic and how tackling it needs participation across all levels of society and governance. In 2020, across many parts of the world, governments introduced measures to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus, but this created tensions where prior personal freedoms became suddenly limited. Here in the U.K., police forces found themselves in a new role in enforcing emergency legislation. Dr Sarah Charman is a reader in criminology at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice here at the University of Portsmouth. Sarah has been carrying out research into the impact of the pandemic upon police, and the public.

Sarah Charman: We've been looking at issues like organisational resilience, like police wellbeing. But we've also been looking at public levels of compliance and public attitudes towards the police as well. So we've been analysing body-worn video footage. We've conducted video diaries, surveys of police and public interviews with police and public and also focus groups with senior leaders. So we've amassed an enormous amount of data on what the changes within the pandemic have meant for the police and the public.

John Worsey: Around the world, the impacts of limited freedom of movement were intense. These impacts ranged from limited access to safe or consistent work and income for some communities, limited social support for isolated individuals, as well as increased pressures in domestic environments. Leila Choukroune is a professor of international law and director of the University of Portsmouth's Democratic Citizenship Research Theme. Leila explained how the Covid-19 crisis also became a human rights crisis in many parts of the world.

Leila Choukroune: Governments have introduced measures to legally justify limits on personal freedoms, starting with the freedom of movement, this multiple and repeated restriction risk leading to this establishment of basically a state of exception, a state in which the sovereign chooses to act outside the structure of the law. These use of the principle, the idea of exception is not exceptional. In international human rights treaties, you are very clear possibility to indeed use exception, but they are frames. It's very clear. You also need to guarantee a number of rights you cannot derogate from. And these rights are core human rights. So regardless of the circumstances, countries must protect core human rights, the right to life, prohibition of torture and slavery and judicial guarantees, including the right to a fair trial, legal personality, freedom of thought, conscience and religion. And as we have seen throughout the world, these very core human rights have not been protected, have not been respected.

John Worsey: Leila highlighted three thematic elements that concern her in narratives she's seen played out around the world.

Leila Choukroune: Science has been used as a very ambiguous weapon, calling upon reason, rationality, discipline, the body's discipline in the name of science. So that's extremely powerful. Also then fear. The fear of what? The fear of the virus, but more powerful than the fear of the virus, the fear of others. Others bodies are simple vehicles of death, other, the foreign, but also your own family members. And the last tool I'd like to address briefly is the idea of greed. You have a sort of paternalistic state, you may say, in a more diplomatic manner, Canadian state, providing us with everything, providing for our needs, giving us resources. But there's a sort of exchange here. So a form of economy contentment called prosperity to buy silence.

John Worsey: Sounds scary, but that's not to say these tools are always used with the deliberate intention of undermining democracy.

Leila Choukroune: Of course, this is really difficult. And again, you know, we're not scientists, we're not at the government. We're not taking decisions. So one may say, well, it's very easy to think and speak. It's more difficult to take decisions and actions.

John Worsey: Speaking for the UK, just what sort of impact has the funding of such resources had on the police force during the pandemic? Sarah shared some of her observations.

Sarah Charman: The police have lost enormous amounts of numbers over the last ten years through stringent cuts to police budgets. And what that's meant has been that even though we have seen an increase in numbers in very recent years, we're still not up to the levels we were in 2010, for example. And what you've got is an awful lot of very, very young in-service police officers. And the impact of having to be on the front line during this pandemic may be very, very severe on those officers because of the underfunding we've seen in policing services over recent years. Underfunding in all sorts of areas of public life and public health, which have no doubt exacerbated the situation that we're now in.

John Worsey: Sarah explored people's responses to compliance during the pandemic, and she found that the way we measured our own behaviours versus those of strangers differed.

Sarah Charman: Well, we saw some really interesting results from this with the research that we've been doing because we asked questions about people's perceptions of their own levels of compliance and additionally how well they thought other people complied. And what was really interesting is that the further individuals and groups of people were removed from the respondents own social environment, the more likely the respondent was to think that they weren't complying. So, for example, I would see myself as being very compliant, along with my immediate family, perhaps my mom down the road, my friends, perhaps my neighbours, I would see is quite compliant. But other people were considered very much to be non-compliant. And this is really close to other research that's been going on as well, which finds there was a YouGov survey recently that found that 91 per cent of adults said that they would act responsibly as lockdown measures eased, but they felt that only about a quarter of other people would do that. People believe that other people throughout this pandemic have not obeyed the restrictions in the way that they should have done, when, in fact, the reality is that many people have.

John Worsey: As changes to individual rights were imposed at pace at a time of enormous fear and uncertainty, we saw a rise in protest and public solidarity in 2020, both online and offline. In a wave of activity following the assassination of US citizen George Floyd by police in his home nation, people united behind the Black Lives Matter movement in public demonstrations across the world. Later in the year, the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard from a south London street resulted in a physical vigil where police clashed with crowds. Police present at protests and gatherings in 2020 were placed in a position where they had also become enforcers of social distancing legislation. Amidst public uncertainty over what was permissible, this presented a challenge to the normal police role in supporting public events.

Sarah Charman: There have been big problems around messaging coming from the government, and there've been big problems as well in understanding those changes to legislation from the police. Because the police are suddenly being given a new role as national public health enforcers, which was completely new to them and very unexpected. So certainly in the early stages of the pandemic, I think we also saw tensions arise because of that confusion. Police forces were confusing what was guidance and what was law. They were attempting to enforce aspects of guidance that weren't in the regulations. So I think tensions were quite strong in the early days of the pandemic when we were seeing such constant variations in lockdown regulations. We've seen a lot of changes in the way that the police have operated. In particular, we've seen a heavy move much more towards enforcement. So at the beginning of the pandemic, the police in the UK adopted the four E's approach of engage, explain, encourage and enforce. And this was well-liked by the public. But we've got to be really careful that we don't respond to the loudest voices in a way, those loud voices that want this more authoritarian style of policing, particularly when it's directed at other people and not themselves. We've also seen changes in policing styles in relation to protest as well. And we've got new proposed legislation in the UK around protests in the police crime sentencing and courts bill. And within that, the home secretary is the one who defines what serious disruption is and then has the ability to impose conditions on people's right to protest. And we're at that time now where fear has been invoked within the population that actually the many members of the public will be quite willing to accept these kerbs on their right to protest in the aim of safety and national security. But the legislation itself is very restrictive in terms of what we're able to do.

Leila Choukroune: I think the job of the police has been quite horrible because they had to take measures which often were quite unjust and in which it was probably very difficult for them to believe really, not to mention that the legality of these measures was very thin. So the very fact that the state has subcontracted this policing, this management of the crisis to professional organisation, including the police, is also something very worrying.

John Worsey: Introducing new legislation is, in normal times, a hotly debated matter. Is there a risk that rushing emergency acts through could create injustice? Leila says we must be mindful of hurrying through temporary laws that could undermine our democratic status quo or contribute to polarising narratives.

Leila Choukroune: Also, something really interesting Sarah mentioned is the idea of absence of transparency because not publishing the text, changing the rules all the time, this instability is what we call arbitrariness, so you never know on what ground you are going to be judged really. How you can act, how you can live your life. Emergency legislation, as we said, you know, this is a trend which is here to stay, I'm afraid, or has stayed – I hope it's not here to stay. But we've seen that for years now. We've seen that around 9/11. You all remember terrorism and emergency legislation which had been passed at that time in the US, same sort of legislation against terrorism in France, for example, there to stay for a month in the name of fighting against the other, again. Same legislation in Turkey against what? Again, dissent, political dissent. So I'm afraid this tool you can call emergency legislation or state of exception has stayed here for many years. And this is extremely worrying because now the new excuse is the pandemic. But what's going to be the next excuse to leave our lives between bracket really in a time frame, which is not the normal time frame, but that of an exception and an exception which stays.

Sarah Charman: And I think in policing terms, we really need to get back to a model of policing by consent because policing by consent is always going to be that balance between negative and positive rights. But I think what the pandemic has done is to really threaten that delicate status of what policing by consent is. It's been very difficult for the police service. They've had to enforce these freedom threatening restrictions. But at the same time, they've been trying to maintain levels of public confidence and public satisfaction and legitimacy. But we need to get back to it to a style of policing and a style of legislation that focuses much more on policing as the norm, rather than, as Leila's been saying, policing by exception.

John Worsey: Some nuanced points from Sarah and Leila. But does this mean that UK democracy is facing crisis? Or does a strong public conversation around control measures and state legislation show that it's alive and well?

Leila Choukroune: Well, I think, you know, no matter what the pandemic has been, no matter what the sort of extreme response by the government, the citizens have been very resilient. When you think about the Black Lives Matter movement, when you think about certain electoral victory or resource in everywhere in the world in favour of more democratic regimes. The year has also been a year of fight, a year of resilience, a year fight for democracy. So this is pretty encouraging. So hopefully, you know, again, some shine is going to come from the people in a positive way.

Sarah Charman: And I think it would be great to see policing returned to a concentration of public confidence and legitimacy rather than enforcement. Policing by consent model relies on people wanting to comply. It encourages an internal desire to comply rather than a requirement to comply. So we need to get back to that more normative compliance rather than the instrumental compliance that we've seen during the pandemic. But I think we must also remember the impact of this upon people who have worked front and centre of the pandemic, because I think good policing in particular also requires police officers who've got high levels of self legitimacy, and that requires them to have a reasonable level of wellbeing. And what we've discovered in our research during this pandemic is that the wellbeing levels of police officers, particularly those at the frontline, particularly those with caring responsibilities, has been seriously damaged by the pandemic. We found over half of them suffering anxiety, a third of officers feeling less safe during the pandemic. And we need to be careful that although we can admire resilience in those who've been front and centre, we need to think long term about the challenges that may lie ahead. And I think policing generally is going to have huge challenges lying ahead in terms of public expectations as well. Leila and I have been talking about that polarisation. That us versus them and the othering. And although it's not the role of police to solve any of that and to heal the divisions and the distrust which are within our public, they probably will in reality find that they've played quite a central role in that as the post-pandemic world evolves. So we need to get back to thinking about the positives of good policing, for example, like communication, like visibility and like fairness, which are actually the fundamentals of what's legitimate within a state police.

John Worsey: During the pandemic, police records of hate crime towards people of East and South East Asian descent in Britain soared. Between January and June 2020, the Met police identified 457 crimes against people who self-identified as Chinese. The Met figure for March of 2020, when national lockdown was imposed, saw a figure three times that of previous years. But hate crime, be it racist or otherwise, is not a problem that occurs only during times of increased national pressure. I wanted to understand more about the patterns and long term impact of this rise on attitudes and policy-making going forwards. Dr Lisa Sugiura and Jemma Tyson are senior lecturers in criminology at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Lisa has an interest in cybercrime.

Lisa Sugiura: I have been researching cybercrime for about 10 years and I predominantly focus on gender-based violence and harms online. So I look at things like technology, facilitated domestic abuse and sexual violence as well as online misogyny.

John Worsey: Jemma's interest lies in the policing of hate crime.

Jemma Tyson: I've done research before that's focussed on policing of disabalist hate crime and the experiences of both service users and service providers. But I'm involved in a number of independent advisory group scrutiny panels that focus on hate crime, whether it's with the police or CPS at national and local levels.

John Worsey: She says even with the increased reporting of hate crime, the problem could be even more extensive than realised.

Jemma Tyson: What we know with hate crime more generally is that hate crime is underreported, crimes are underreported, hate crime specifically underreported. There will be a number of other experiences that we aren't capturing and experiences of victimisation that we're not capturing. In terms of the forms, a hate crime ranges from, you know, those verbal abusive comments that are shouted at people in the street to the physical abuse. And we've seen some instances over the last few months in Southampton with a lecturer in Southampton who was physically assaulted. And I think verbal abuse can be really harmful. And where we often talk about victimisation, low-level abuse and perhaps not really capturing the impact in the experiences of victims. With hate crime, it's not just that verbal abuse, but it's also knowing that you've been targeted because of a characteristic something about your own identity, which is the target of the hostility and the abuse that's been sent you away.

John Worsey: Lisa thinks that online platforms have allowed fear-based narratives to run unchallenged and give validation to racist ideas during the covid-19 pandemic.

Lisa Sugiura: Trying to get to the motivation behind this is really difficult. But what we do see online, which is reinforced in traditional offline media as well, are these narratives of stereotyping and scapegoating, often from people with quite prominent platforms as well. I think we need to really take into account that's a wider socio-political climate that we're in. So where you have got people from other countries being othered and blamed, if we set it in the context within obviously the pandemic, obviously, we had the former POTUS who validated people's fears, people's blame upon East/Southeast Asian, Asian persons. And what we see online is that they're just constantly being reproduced in those echo chambers as well, where you've got people just being constantly exposed to those same rhetoric's as well.

John Worsey: So how do we challenge or address incidences of hate crime? Jemma says it may not be as simple as arresting perpetrators and this can actually exacerbate problems for police and public.

Jemma Tyson: Quite often with hate crime, the victim just wants the abuse to stop. And for some people, they're worried about outcomes such as arrests that will increase the victimisation, the targeting from kind of other people who are associates of the person that has been arrested and that kind of fear in relation to that. So we often talk about what the police are doing. Have they done this? Have they arrested? And sometimes the outcomes that maybe the police are striving for or are expected by wider members of the public, aren't necessarily those outcomes that the victims want to see. Hate crimes are really challenging from the police in relation to that evidence gathering, particularly going even further with kind of charges and those types of things. Sometimes it's very easy to recognise that actually the motivation or that demonstration of hostility based on somebodies particular-- a particular characteristic is very clear. But other times the evidence gathering around that is not quite as clear cut.

Lisa Sugiura: Just to add to Jemma's main point there, the police are just one piece of a puzzle. It's not that we just look to the police to arrest and to solve the problem, because, as Jemma highlighted, that can actually inadvertently have some negative repercussions as well. When we're dealing with a problem of this magnitude, it's about trying- it's actually trying to get to the root cause of it as well, and even kind of prevent people being enabled to do it. So looking at online and social media, those things around the responsibility of social media tech companies as well, to allow these forms of language on their platforms, which is currently being discussed within the context of the forthcoming online safety law. So through the online harms bill.

John Worsey: Regulating tech companies through Ofcom rules and holding platforms accountable for the messages they allow users to communicate are just some of the ideas in discussion. What's more, in the online world, the powers of jurisdiction in one area might not always extend to the sources of crime in other parts of the world.

Jemma Tyson: The examples I gave before in the offline world, but in the online, when you've got somebody that's posted something on a website that's hosted in the US, the police in Hampshire don't have that jurisdiction when something has been posted outside and not even within the country that the local police are working in, for example. They're policing their area doesn't have that jurisdiction to have that post removed, to have that website taken down.

Lisa Sugiura: Obviously, we have specific hate legislation, but there's so much as well that kind of falls in the grey areas. So legal but harmful when it comes to these forms of abuses. And that's really difficult to capture. Is it being deliberate intention as well? Because so much-- so many of our laws come down to intention. And online, I think one of the biggest excuses for abusive behaviours is that there was no intention to harm, that this is satire. It's a joke. That's obviously a huge tactic of trolls and things like they alt-right. And they spread their memes and then you get other people then that inadvertently disseminate that. So they're spreading this disinformation also misinformation.

John Worsey: Lisa explained some of the technical ideas in development to ensure hate crime doesn't reach online platforms where it can be shared further.

Lisa Sugiura: In the ideal world, it wouldn't reach the platform in the first instance. Hence, we have GCHQ looking to use more AI techniques, for machine learning to automatically recognise then forms of language that are abusive so they won't get out there. They won't have that impact on the individual and of course, the wider community as well, which signifies that, you know, that they're not welcome, that they're hated. But of course, the problem is technology can't take into account the sort of nuances of language. They aren't going to be able to pick up absolutely everything, and especially with Internet culture, which is just I mean, it's just-- it just develops at such a fast rate where words and phrases are being utilised in new ways and new meanings. They mean something to particular groups, which then kind of obviously symbolise something else to others. And in terms of technological solutions, it's a good start. But the issue is obviously recognising that that's a first step.

John Worsey: For Jemma, strong moral leadership is key in making sure all of society recognises the extent of the hate crime problem and the importance of creating resources to address it. She also hopes this recognition would encourage more victims of abuse to report it.

Jemma Tyson: Hate crime and dealing with these types of issues it isn't just a policing problem. For me, I'm very much of the opinion that this is a societal issue that we need to think about the language that we're using, Lisa, mentioned, memes. The, you know, being able to challenge people when you hear certain words and certain phrases kind of, you know, in your day to day, that again, coming back to that moral leadership, if you haven't got that moral leadership in key aspects of society, it's kind of empty promises in some ways. There's no real commitment there.

Lisa Sugiura: It's about being better citizens, just calling it out when you see it and challenging the languages, the behaviours. Something else that's being debated around the online harms bill is about digital citizenship as well. It is very much about that bystander approach, about, well, what can you do if you see abuse happening online? In a way, it might actually be easier to report it online. You've got the safety of being behind your computer screen. You know, you can remain anonymous. Ordinarily, yes, there is backlash if there's a big public event. So the amount of racism, particularly from white supremacist groups online in relation to the Black Lives Matter, racist speech from those particular groups. So, yes, it's definitely possible to sort of track those trends when you see something big happen in the public domain, the media then reports on it. And, yes, certain ideologies definitely seem to come to the forefront in response.

John Worsey: So how specific was the hate crime response to the pandemic? Jemma says the pattern is a familiar one.

Jemma Tyson: When we look back at the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, in 2017, we saw increased reports of Islamophobic, anti-Muslim hatred that followed that. Look at the EU referendum and the narratives and the, kind of, the experiences that individuals were reporting after that. So I think what we're seeing in relation to the pandemic, the circumstances, the context is new, but the process behind all of this isn't. This is repeated. And I think there is a lot of learning from where we've had these significant events, whether they're national, they're international, and the kind of the impact that they have. You tend to find that they spike quite quickly and then do drop. And sometimes when the drop comes back, it goes to a slightly higher level than what we kind of had beforehand.

John Worsey: The pandemic has caused us to ask important questions about the values of our society in a world that's both online and offline, as well as how we should regulate it. We've heard how British people, services and institutions have reacted with resilience to changes in governance, but more importantly, that voices of dissent have been raised and important conversations in debates have been able to happen around the impact of emergency legislation on human rights. These are conversations that are vital in holding governments to account and ensuring our democracy continues to respect human rights. We've touched on some incredibly nuanced and complex issues in today's episode, and researchers at the University of Portsmouth are dedicating huge resources to better understand the issues so that we can, in turn, advocate for a fairer and safer society for all. There's much more to be said and explored. So if you'd like to share your thoughts on the issues discussed in this programme, you can tweet using the hashtag Life Solved. Next time, we'll be looking at the future of sustainability and how the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated a global environmental crisis, too.

Steve Fletcher: There are real problems in the global south, particularly around environmental pollution and public health. You know, people living in horrific conditions where plastic pollution, I mean, is part of their everyday life.

John Worsey: You can follow this podcast on your favourite app and find out more about our researchers and their projects by going online to

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