January 2021 Update

Both the Undercover Research Group and Netpol are particularly busy and cannot update this diary as regularly as usual. This is a summary of policing of coronavirus restrictions over the last month.

POLICING

As 2020 drew to a close, around the country there were reports that police had clamped down on unauthorised New Year gatherings. In Liverpool, it was reported that shoppers drivers from Tier 4 areas were stopped by police from entering Merseyside on a major route into the city. Officers in York issued what police described as a “shocking number of fines” to people from tier 3 areas visiting the tier 2 city over the weekend before Christmas.

Small detail: there is no legal restriction on travelling from one Tier to another, or within one Tiered area, it’s advice only. There is no power under the regulations for police to stop cars. So in short, this should not be happening.

The start of the new year has seen warnings that the national lockdown in England will result in an increase in the number of fines issued by the police.

Police in Devon and Cornwall have been stopping people and asking where they have travelled from. Suffolk Police officers had been told to “step up” enforcement. Avon and Somerset Police have confirmed whether it will use automatic number plate recognition technology  

On 7 January, Home Secretary Priti Patel told ‘Good Morning Britain’ that “If you are out, police officers may ask you for justification why you are out and about.” The chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Martin Hewitt added that “Forces will continue to bear down on that very small minority who flagrantly and selfishly breach the regulations”.  

On 12 January, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said it was “preposterous” that anyone could be unaware of the need to follow the stringent lockdown measures. The barrister Adam Wagner, who has been compiling the regular changes in the regulations, said she was wrong to say that most people understand the rules and shared a video explaining why they are not straightforward. Two days before, it was reported that officers in Greenwich appear to flout the restrictions by tucking into breakfast, packing the restaurant – that should not be serving tables in the first place – without any social distancing.

There are real risks for the police in introducing more stringent lockdown measures and potentially facing a repeat of the backlash they faced in 2020. The Police Federation has repeatedly complained that officer morale within forces took a major hit last year and in December it was reported that a survey in West Midlands found that 69 per cent of almost 1000 respondents felt the virus had had a “negative or very negative” impact on morale. National chair John Apter was quoted as saying, “despite doing their very best, they [officers] have been turned into the villains of this pandemic by some”. Coincidently, these exact words were used as the headline for an interview last year with the editors of Policing The Corona State for the Haldane Society’s Socialist Lawyer magazine.

FIXED PENALTY NOTICES

On 8 January, the National Police Chiefs Council reported that 32,329 fixed penalty notices had been recorded as having been issued in England and Wales under Coronavirus Regulations between Friday 27 March and Monday 21 December. Of these, 6,475 notices have been processed under the regulations covering the English national lockdown that commenced on 5 November. Nevertheless, the NPCC’ chair Hewitt said that the police “had reserved enforcement for the most blatant offenders”.

The largest number of fines was issued by Northumbria (3,034), Greater Manchester (2,183), Dyfed-Powys (1,784) Metropolitan (1,761), Lancashire (1,506), North Yorkshire (1,484) and Merseyside (1,411). A full breakdown is available here.

A few days earlier The Times reported that last year, 350 people have been wrongly charged under laws covering coronavirus restrictions and some have been wrongly convicted. The review of all charges announced by the Crown Prosecution Service in May shows that all 218 people charged under the Coronavirus Act and 115 people prosecuted under the Health Protection Regulations were dealt with wrongly. Kirsty Brimelow, QC, who worked on this for the last nine months, said this is only the top of the iceberg: “As there are so many wrongful prosecutions (where there are safeguards of reviewing lawyers), there will be many more Fixed Penalty Notes issued unlawfully”. She called for them to be reviewed as well. 

Just befor Christmas, a group of students⁩ had their life-changing £10,000 FPNs withdrawn by police after pro bono representations of Adam Wagner and Pippa Woodrow. Bindmans lawyers emphasize that if FPNs have been wrongly imposed, or the fixed penalty amount is disproportionate in the circumstances of the case, then swift representations to the police may, potentially, lead to them being withdrawn or replaced. There is no formal route of appeal under the legislation, however, and much will depend on the attitude of the police force concerned.

This was promptly illustrated by Derbyshire Police – infamous last year for their excessive interpretation of coronavirus regulations – were reported to have fined two women £200 each for driving five miles to take a walk, saying their hot drinks were “classed as a picnic”. The force initially issued this statement and then said it was reviewing fixed penalty notices.

Meanwhile, Police Scotland has issued more than 7000 fines since the start of the pandemic. The Scottish National Party MP Margaret Ferrier was arrested and charged by police after travelling despite a positive coronavirus test. On 8 January, Big Brother Watch shared a video showing Police Scotland officers storming into a family home on suspicion they had guests around. In fact, their seriously ill daughter had just been discharged from hospital.

RIGHTS TO PROTEST

After it was restricted in November, protest returned as an exemption of the ban on gatherings with the introduction of the three tiers system by the end of that month (70 pages, over 30,000 words, according to Adam Wagner).  Picketing was added separately, allowed when carried out in accordance with the Trade Union and Labour Regulations Act 1992 – and the necessary precautions of course.

However, with the stronger lockdown coming into force on 21 December last year, the National Police Chiefs Council said that there are “no exceptions that apply to protests and picketing in a Tier 4 area”.   The courts, however, may well think differently

Adam Wagner came up with a possible loophole, saying it may be possible for a protest to be held in a “public outdoor place” if that place is “operated by a business, charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution” but NOT on other public land. The question is whether protest in such circumstances would be an unlisted “reasonable excuse” to leave or remain outside the home as the specific exception that applies to Tiers 1, 2 and 3 for protest (and picketing) has been removed for Tier 4. He believes it probably would be possible if the courts read together with Articles 10 and 11 (protest and freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights, but it’s an open question.

By dispersing the weekly Piccadilly Assange protest on Saturday 19th December, the police were applying the new Tier 4 regulations preemptively. As a response, the WISE Up Action Network compiled a guide on protest under the new COVID regulations.

At the start of January, another 17 anti-lockdown protesters – again including Piers Corbyn – were arrested in London.

On 12 January, Netpol shared videos of Kent Police threatening fines against two asylum seekers holding up a bed-sheet banner in protest against worsening conditions at Napier Barracks, a Home Office processing centre in Folkestone.

COMMENT

These lockdowns reveal the UK’s true character: we are a nation of snitches, Joel Golby, The Guardian, 13 January 2021

Why is it still so difficult to challenge Covid fines?, Lizzie Dearden, The Independent, 12 January 2021

 

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