Public Health Emergencies


The COVID-19 Pandemic has demonstrated the devastating impact of a public health emergency on health, society and the economy. It has shown the need for governments, public authorities and communities to prepare and plan for such events as much as any other disaster or emergency and to ensure that they have the means available to respond promptly and efficiently. 

The law plays a fundamental role in enabling the effective management of public health emergencies. Its importance may not necessarily have been recognised before 2019, but there can be no excuse to ignore its contribution after the COVID-19. Governments have been forced to introduce legal measures, often relying on emergency powers, to restrict movement and prevent normal personal and business activity. Never before have so many laws been made in so many countries in respect of one event in such a short period of time.

Public health emergencies should be managed by laws at both the global and national level. In theory, global law—in particular the International Health Regulations—imposes obligations on States and sets the context for much domestic legislation by requiring States to develop, strengthen and maintain core capacities to manage public health emergencies. However, as the COVID-19 Pandemic has demonstrated, the International Health Regulations and the World Health Organisation have, in practice, been found wanting. Although elements of the International Health Regulations should support States, the reality is that the legal management of public health emergencies will continue to depend, as with the management of all other disasters, on national primarily on national laws.

Even if the push for a new international treaty to deal with pandemics is successful, it is naïve to believe that global initiatives will lead to any significant improvement in the domestic management of public health emergencies. As with all disaster laws, improvements will only ever be secured through the work of national legislatures.

After the COVID-19 Pandemic, States have already recognised the need to update their legislation to provide protection against all types of public health hazard. Sadly, the threat of public health emergencies is increasing. As the World Bank and WHO Global Preparedness Monitoring Board has reported, developments and innovations over the last century have:

“created unprecedented vulnerability to fast moving infectious disease outbreaks by fuelling population growth and mobility, disorienting the climate, boosting interdependence, and generating inequality. The destruction of tropical rain forests has increased the opportunities for transmission of viruses from wild animals to humans. We have created a world where a shock anywhere can become a catastrophe everywhere…”

To avoid a repeat of the failures and problems experienced during the COVID-19 Pandemic, significant work will be required to ensure that national public health laws are fit for modern purpose.


Simon Whitbourn of Knightwood Legal was the main author of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ report into the lega response to COVID-19: ‘Law and Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic’. The report examines how law and policy can support preparedness for and response to public health emergencies, and provides recommendations for the improvement of the International Health Regulations and national public health emergency laws.


Knightwood Legal therefore has particular experience in analysing and providing advice on the laws for managing public health emergencies. This includes the drafting of emergency legislation and the implementation of international instruments, such as the International Health Regulations, into national law. We are able to assist public organisations with the handling of public health emergencies as well as reviewing existing public health emergency management legislation.

Recent and current projects relating to public health emergencies

COVID-19 Emergency Decrees Mappings for the British Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Disaster Law Programme. Countries reviewed included: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda and the United Kingdom. 

Law and Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic(International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 8 July 2021).

Guidance on Law and Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response - Pilot Version (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 8 July 2021).


Implementation of the International Health Regulations in National Laws—A Legal Guide (Knightwood Legal, forthcoming).


Contact: Simon Whitbourn


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