The bank holiday weekend has been dominated by the news that Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, took at least one 270-mile round trip from London to his parents’ home in Durham while suspected of having the coronavirus, in contravention of strict rules in operation at the time that said no travel was permissible for those who were sick.
Although the details of this otherwise fairly mundane story have been picked over intensely by the media, its greater significance has been in the response from government ministers leaping to defend Cummings and, in the process, fundamentally undermining the public health message to “stay home and save lives”. One scientific advisor to the government said it has “trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19”
During the daily Downing Street briefing on Saturday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted people should adhere to the rules “to the best of your ability” but that there might be times when “not all these measures will be possible”. He added: “You have to get yourself in lockdown and do that in the best and most practical way – and I think that will be different for different people under whatever circumstances, their particular family differences, happen to dictate, that’s all that’s happened in this case.”.
Education Secretary Michael Gove went further, insisting that “caring for your wife and child is not a crime”. However, as Netpol pointed out, over the last seven weeks the state has fined thousands and unlawfully criminalised and prosecuted at least 44 people for actions that were not a crime under the government’s often confusing coronavirus regulations.
Gareth Roberts, writing in the BylineTimes, has explored the unexpected legal consequences of the government’s defence and argued that 14,000 Brits could now appeal lockdown fines, thanks to Cummings.
The barrister Kirsty Brimelow QC, who along with civil rights groups has called for a review of all coronavirus fines, has warned that the government’s stance risks “losing cooperation from the public and they may consider ‘why should I pay this fine when I think I was acting on instinct as well?” In a post on the Doughty Street Chambers blog, Brimelow has looked in details at whether Cummings acted “responsibly and regally”, as the Prime Minister had claimed on Sunday.
The immediate impact of this, according to the Telegraph, has been people travelling to beaches over the bank holiday weekend saying that if Dominic Cummings could break the rules, they can too.
Meanwhile, the acting police and crime commissioner for Durham told BBC Radio 5 Live that he has asked the force’s chief constable to “establish the facts” about Cummings’ time in the area.
Amidst the furore, what has attracted less publicity is the call by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights for an urgent review of all fix penalty notice fines and for the government to introduce some means of challenging or appealing them. A committee briefing (PDF) last week said – somewhat presciently – that “it is unacceptable that many thousands of people are being fined in circumstances where… the Regulations contain unclear and ambiguous language” and “there is evidence that the police do not fully understand their powers. A thread on Twitter by barrister Adam Wagner, an advisor to the committee, sets out its recommendations in more detail.
Elsewhere, police officers have created what is effectively a “border patrol” between England and Wales, stopping people crossing the border overbank holiday weekend.
Human right lawyer John Scott QC has been commissioned by Police Scotland to review the force’s use of emergency coronavirus laws, geographical differences in the use of police powers such as fines – and a possible link between enforcement and poverty.
Activists in Bristol and London are working on a mutual aid response app that aims, amongst other options, to support “logging police harassment and abuse of COVID-19 emergency powers including fines”
Face masks cover up a significant portion of what facial recognition needs to identify and detect people – essentially threatening the future of a multimillion-dollar industry unless the technology can learn to recognize people beyond the coverings.
A French court has ruled police use of drones to manage Covid-19 crisis unlawful – ruling found that the imagery and footage captured by drones flying at a low altitude was personal data to the extent that individuals filmed were identifiable, reports Privacy International. Act Up agrees, pointing at something they wrote when Derbyshire police used drones to shame people in April.
On Friday, as part of the Levellers’ “Beautiful Day Lockdown Special online festival, a panel debated policing and coronavirus laws and included Emily Apple from the Canary, Kevin Blowe from Netpol and Attiq Maalik from Liberty Law solicitors.
COVID 19 and States of Emergency: Diogo Esteves and Kim Economides have collected data from 51 countries on how access to justice has changed due to the pandemic.
We can’t police our way out of the pandemic #4, recording of this weekend’s webinar: “An ongoing dialogue space to advance ideas about the abolition of police and prisons, to address concerns about the ramp-up of authoritarianism, increased surveillance and privacy violations, updates on enforcement responses to COVID-19, to address concerns on the ground, share work being done to help strategize for action, and to put into question public health collaborations with police.” Earlier events here.