In late February, the National Police Chiefs Council published the latest statistics (PDF) on coronavirus fixed penalty notices. This indicated that 68,9522 notices have been recorded as having been issued in England (63,201) and Wales (5,751) between Friday 27th March 2020 and Monday 14th February 2021. There was a sharp rise in the number of fines issued following the week of 18th-24th December 2020, coinciding with the introduction of Tier 4 in England. Almost half (45%) of all fixed penalty notices have been issued to young people aged 18-24 years old.
A week after Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said it was “preposterous” that anyone could be unaware of the regulations, nine officers were fined for breaching Covid-19 legislation. Photos emerged online in January showing a group of uniformed officers from the South East Basic Command Unit (BCU) dining in a local café. They were issued with fixed penalty notices to the value of £200 each.
When a group of families travelled to go sledging in early February, the police claimed they had breached COVID regulations. Barrister Adam Wagner contested that, saying: ‘Non-essential travel’ is not part of the law. Not the police’s job to enforce guidance. Also not clear that sledging in the same place as others would be a ‘gathering’.
Essex Police cited a law, the Health Protection Act, which doesn’t exist to warn people at Wat Tyler that birdwatching was not allowed. Stopping frequently to view birds would change the walking as exercise (allowed) to recreation (not allowed). More generally one can question why enforcement of a solitary, isolated activity would be proportionate to the risk.
A woman was fined for going for a walk on the beach with her young daughter. This is not against the law. Big Brother Watch stated that “it is not the job of the police to implement government ‘advice.’”
Apart from cases of an apparent confusion between law and guidance, it is also clear that the police have continued to use the pandemic to expand their powers in other ways, just as they did at the start of the lockdown.
A neighbourhood policing operation in Leeds stopped over 60 vehicles on one road “to ensure that drivers and their passengers were complying with UK government restrictions on essential travel during the pandemic”
On Wednesday 27 January, a mother shared a video on Twitter of a West Midlands police officer stopping her commuting son and asking for his personal details under the guise of enforcing coronavirus legislation. The officer proceeds to harass the man, then arrests him for refusing to disclose his name, address, saying “We’re the police, not just ‘someone’, you idiot”. Netpol commented: “Police officers often use the authority of their uniform, the threat of arrest or outright aggression to frighten people into handing over personal details when there is no legal basis for demanding it.”
Students at the University of Manchester said they have been left frightened by “heavy-handed” policing on campus, with reports of officers entering accommodation to check for coronavirus breaches. ‘It feels like we’re constantly being watched.’ One first-year student told The Independent she had put in an official complaint with Greater Manchester Police (GMP) last month, as she did not know why they entered her flat before issuing fines.
Police closed down peaceful social-distanced Kurdish protest on 13 February, called to put pressure on Turkey to release political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan and to stop attacking the Kurdish people. They had contacted police ahead of the protest, and at the start of the gathering they spoke to the senior officer offering to put in place all necessary safety measures to ensure a CoVid-safe environment. As filmed and reported by Real Media, the police refused to negotiate and instead put a Section 35 dispersal order under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act 2014 in place, threatening anyone attending with fines and/or arrest. Attracting a few dozen people, the protest went ahead for a while. As people dispersed, police chased demonstrators down Green Lanes picking people at random to hand out fines.
Police gave 14 Scottish seafood truckers, who had vowed to dump tons of rotten fish on the Prime Minister’s doorstep in protest, £200 covid fines each for ‘unnecessary journeys’ after their No10 protest. Rather than about protecting public health, this seems to be about abusing emergency powers to silence dissent.
The High Court overturned a conviction for refusing to provide name and address in relation to a suspected breach of Coronavirus Regulations. Sitting at Cardiff on 23 February, it issued an important judgment on the right to silence, the legal duties of citizens and the scope of the Coronavirus Regulations, Patrick Ormerod and Hester Cavaciuti at Bindmans explain.
In Neale v DPP, the court quashed the applicant’s conviction for obstructing a police officer by failing to provide his name and address when requested to do so in order that a Fixed Penalty Notice be issued for allegedly breaching the Coronavirus Regulations.
The legislation does not create a legal duty to provide personal details to a police constable and the High Court concluded that it was not possible to imply such a duty. They warned the court should be wary of expanding police powers by implication.
In 25 August 2020 at Newport Magistrates’ Court , Mr Neale was already acquitted of the offence of leaving home without reasonable excuse on the basis that he was homeless at the time of the alleged offence (the prohibition on leaving home does not apply to homeless people) – and in any event, he had a reasonable excuse for being outside because he was taking his key worker friend’s car for an MOT test.
Neale was supported by BBW and represented by Bindmans and Garden Court Chambers. For more detail see this Bindmans collumn.
“In the short term, it matters if people do not know what the law forbids – that includes the police, whose every mistaken crackdown breeds more distrust. Distrust and confusion are the virus’s friends. And for the future, it matters greatly if ministers think they can order us about without a legal basis, and if we grow used to it.” Confusion and Distrust by Francis FitzGibbon in the London Review of Books, 14 February 2021.
“Policing will never be better if it continues to be rooted in environments where authoritarian and racist principles prevail, where the goal is to punish and control, instead of saving the society from a serious crisis.” – Eveline Lubbers, one of the founders of Policing The Corona State, interviewed by Mohamed Meelhazi in Sputnik International “Britain is experiencing the ‘Slow Building of an Emergency State’, Warns Civil Liberties Monitor”.
- Big Brother Watch Briefing on The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions)
(All Tiers and Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 for the
House of Lords. 1 March 2021, the Lords debated regulations that give police access to Test & Trace data – a month after coming into force. Big Brother Watch has been pointing out that this is disastrous for medical privacy, which has long been the foundation of public health. This briefing explain the how and why.
- Civic space in the era of securitised COVID-19 responses, a new report from the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law looking at how security-related legislation introduced or used by states during the pandemic has restricted civic freedoms and human rights.