Both the Undercover Research Group and Netpol have been particularly busy in November with, respectively, the start of the Undercover Policing Inquiry and the launch of a new report on the policing of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. We have not had the capacity to update this blog as regularly as usual. This is, therefore, a summary of policing of coronavirus restrictions over the last month.
On 13 November, Merseyside Police arrested 27 at a protest in Liverpool, and at another protest in the city on 21 November, a viral video shows the violent arrest of a protester who was punched repeatedly in the head by officers.
A £10,000 fine was issued to the organiser of a protest in Manchester and Northumbria Police dispersed a protest in Newcastle. In Brighton, a protest organiser has been summoned to court for a protest on 7 November. Five people were charged with offences in connection with another anti-lockdown protest in Bristol on 16 November, where Avon & Somerset Police used public order teams, the mounted unit, the dog section, a drone, body-worn cameras and CCTV at to police a demonstration of 400 people.
Merseyside Police are investigating a video showing anti-testing protesters shouting at pupils and harassing a teacher at a Liverpool school, one of the sites of a mass coronavirus testing operation that has been piloted in the city.
A woman reported received “life-changing injuries” after she was set upon by a police dog at an unauthorised rave outside of Bristol.
At around the same time, it was also reported that police forces across England and Wales were told to temporarily stop handing £10,000 on-the-spot fines to people holding gatherings of more than 30 people, over fears of unfairness between those who pay upfront and those who challenge the fee in court. The issuing of these “super fines” was, however, quickly resumed. Liberty and Big Brother Watch called for a review of these fines to ensure compliance with equality laws‘ and wrote to ten police forces with concerns of racial discrimination.
Freedom of Information data gathered by the PA news agency shows that in West Yorkshire, where police issued some of the highest numbers of fixed penalty notices to people caught breaching lockdown restrictions, 497 out of 756 fines issued between March 27 and September 21 (66 per cent) had not been paid within 28 days. In some part of the country, court hearings are, however, starting to take place.
While the restrictions for the holiday season get-togethers are still not finalised in late November, a month ago, David Jamieson, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner chief started warning that the police will enter homes and break up Christmas dinners if families break the lockdown rules, even if this would could serious riots.
Worryingly, COVID enforcement officers – who are not police officers – have been hired by councils that are granting spy powers to allow them to catch suspected rule-breakers. Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch has said the enhanced roles amounted to ‘undercover officers’ who would be ‘spying’ on residents and only undermining public trust in efforts to enforce restrictions. Madeleine Stone, Legal and Policy Officer, said: ‘Hiring undercover officers to enforce guidance that has no legal basis is heavy-handed’. After BBW wrote to Brent Council, they removed a reference to ‘covert’ deployments from the Covid Enforcement Officer job descriptions.
Kirsty Brimelow QC gave evidence to the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords on the (il)legality of the emergency laws, the unfairness of FPNs, how enforcement keeps going wrong-reflecting on the first wrongful prosecution. Spoiler: criminal justice system is on its knees.
Westminster magistrates are using the Single Justice Procedure for these cases, behind-closed-doors with just a magistrate & legal advisor present in prosecutions for breaking the first coronavirus lockdown. In a long Twitter thread Kirk explains he has seen paperwork that shows:
Convictions for offences people weren’t prosecuted for;
Hefty fines handed out which may exceed the legal maximum;
Police allowed to try again when paperwork is botched.
The parties aside, in many of these instances people receiving fines said they did not understand the regulations. This is perhaps unsurprising as in evidence to MPs, the senior officer leading the national police response to the coronavirus pandemic, Owen Weatherill, said he too did not know the lockdown rules and thatthe three-tier system is too confusing. Currently, each Tier is around 12,000 words of text, a mixture of micro-management of everyday lives and unresolvable ambiguity, although the minister for crime and policing, Kit Malthouse, recommended people go online to look up the measures and said everyone has an “individual duty towards” collective public health.
On 24 October, there were 18 arrests made at the latest anti-lockdown protest in central London and at around 6pm the protesters were dispersed in the “interests of public safety”, according to a statement by the police. The day before, at Westminster Magistrates Court, lawyers for the prominent opponent of lockdown restrictions, Piers Corbyn, argued he had been “specifically targeted” by police. He was due to stand trial on Friday but late disclosure of police logbooks has delayed proceedings until 27 November.
Meanwhile, there were indications on social media that the organisers of a planned demonstration at the Polish Embassy in London, about the new abortion laws introduced in Poland, were leaned on heavily by police and initially cancelled the protest, although hundreds of people turned up anyway.
Meanwhile, recruitment firms have begun advertising for “Covid Marshals” around the country and as this example from Bedford shows, part of the role is “capturing and reporting evidence and intelligence of non-compliance” and “acting as ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground”. In Bedfordshire, there has already been a report in the last week of “fake covid marshalls” trying to get into a resident’s home to supposedly investigate breaches of the regulations.
Yet another sign that the government is unable to abandon its public order approach to embrace a public health crisis one instead, is that the police will get access to the details of members of the public in England who have been told to self-isolate through NHS Test and Trace.
The BBC reported that this will happen on a “case-by-case basis”, according to a ‘memorandum of understanding’ agreed between the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The Guardian fears that it may deter people from getting tested for Covid-19 if forces get data.
As London moves unto tier 2 of the government’s new three-tier classification of the level of localised infections, resulting in new restrictions, the Metropolitan Police has announced that its officers are “stepping up” their response to target people allegedly breaching coronavirus regulations, with additional patrols in the evenings near bars and pubs.
Last week, the Metropolitan Police threatened the Tudor Rose, a longstanding and popular venue in Southall, with a £10,000 fine for hosting what a senior officer called a ‘dangerous and foolish’ wedding.
In a sign of the confusion over the rules for venues, however, another venue that had a gathering broken up by police has complained that it had not broken rules on wedding parties because it had organised a “celebratory dinner” weeks after a wedding ceremony had taken place, stating that this was no different to people sitting in groups in a restaurant. This was also an event where the majority of the people were Asian.
On Merseyside, a tier-3 area, armed police were sent to issue a £1000 fine to a gym owner after he refused to shut his business. A number of gyms in Liverpool, facing similar police enforcement, are threatening legal action.
Individuals are still being unlawfully prosecuted under extreme lockdown laws and the Coronavirus Act. Even worse, as Tristan Kirk found out for the Evening Standard, Londoners accused of breaking the lockdown rules are being prosecuted behind closed doors and under a veil of secrecy.
The College of Policing claims that the approach to coronavirus enforcement was ‘well received by commentators’ and was apparently based on science – using that roaring ‘success story’, stop and search powers, as its starting point.
On 2 October it was reported that the Metropolitan Police had launched an investigation into Scottish National Party MP Margaret Ferrier, over alleged breaches of coronavirus rules that included travelling by train journey between London and Glasgow after receiving a positive Covid-19 test. Ten days on, she continues to resist calls to resign as an MP.
The Independent reported that, just as in mid-May, the police in parts of Britain are creating a “postcode lottery” byhanding out coronavirus fines far more frequently in some areas than others.
Dorset Police fined five people after they held a party in Bournemouth attended by around 100 people. Warwickshire Police also plan to issue fines to people who attended two parties in Leamington Spa. Greater Manchester Police had a particularly busy weekend, handing out 85 fines across a region currently under specific local lockdown rules. In Cardiff, which also has a local lockdown, police were reported to have attended a party at an Airbnb property that had more than 30 people present.
In Dunstable, Bedfordshire Police are investigating a funeral attended by “between 400 to 500 people”, which would breach guidance stating only 30 mourners are allowed.
A takeaway owner has been fined £1,000 by police for serving a single customer food four minutes after the 10pm curfew. Barrister Kirsty Brimelow QC commented that this type of draconian action by police “batters any remaining trust” that the public may have and that people can ill afford fines during this time.
In South Yorkshire, police have drawn up a guide to protesting while coronavirus restrictions are in place. They did so to “help cut through the complexities of attending large-scale events without breaking the law”, but emphasise the “threat of tough action” for anyone who fails to comply with police instructions, saying, “where protestors are not compliant, we may need to take action in the immediacy or film the situation in order to take action at a later date”.
In Kettering, the town’s CCTV network of cameras is used to monitor whether coronavirus laws are being complied and whether shoppers and bus passengers are wearing face masks.
BigBrotherWatch found – as confirmed here – that the excessive contact tracing law has not been practised on the parliamentary estate – yet small businesses face fines for non-compliance, while older and low-income people who don’t use the NHS Covid-19 app are refused entry to premises.
Before everything will change again this week with the new Three-Tier System, some updates of the rules that were launched over the past ten days.
Latest changes (24 and 28 September) on opening hours and small gatherings, at the very useful wiki by Michael Maggs.
You can now get a £10,000 fine for breaking self-isolation rules. Barrister Adam Wagner explains the rules (which are complicated and onerous) in his Better Human podcast.
Wagner has also argued that Parliament should be given a prior vote on the new three-tier system and where it is initially to apply because the government said that significant measures would from now on be debated and voted in parliament. It seems unlikely this will happen.
And, the last time the government promised to simplify coronavirus regulations was when the Prime Minister said “the rule of 6” would simplify the rules on gatherings. The rule on gatherings was increased from 850 words to over 2,000 overnight…
The joint Netpol and Undercover Research Group article “Villains of the Pandemic”, on the policing of coronavirus restrictions, is published in the current issue of the Socialist Lawyer magazine and now up on this blog
This article was written in the summer of 2020 and first appeared in issue 85 of the Haldane Society magazine Socialist Lawyer
When the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) and the Undercover Research Group started the “Policing The Corona State” diary1 back in March to document the policing of Britain’s coronavirus state of emergency, neither of us really expected that months later, we would still need to continue updating it.
Regularly checking the local and national media, press releases from campaigners and the latest statistics from the police has, however, helped us to achieve what we set out to, which was to provide a week-by-week snapshot of issues we had definitely anticipated: the arbitrary use of police powers. Looking back, the lockdown and the way it has been policed may arguably have helped to create the exact conditions both for Black Lives Matter protests in Britain and for the prospects of growing social unrest after restrictions are lifted.
From the beginning, it was apparent that the police intended to handle the pandemic as a public order rather than a public health crisis. Instead of focusing on information, support and solutions such as building networks of care to deal with a situation that was completely new to all of us, senior officers treated a frightened and anxious public, first and foremost, as suspects and potential criminals. It did not seem to matter that public opinion had dragged the government into introducing quarantine measures in the first place.
Even before the passing of public health regulations and the Coronavirus Act into law in late March, police officers had already begun to impose lockdown measures, stopping motorists from travelling and warning train travellers, “we don’t want to see you again tomorrow”. Derbyshire Police launched “proactive” patrols that included cars equipped with loudhailers ordering people indoors and on 26 March, the day the new state of emergency formally began, it was widely criticised for using drones in the Peak District to shame people who had been outdoors.
Right from the start, we also saw the police establishing online portals enabling people to denounce their neighbours for alleged breaches of lockdown rules. Humberside, on day one, was the first. By early May, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said that forces had received a staggering 194,000 such “snitching” calls.
Once the lockdown was in place, there was complete confusion over how often people could take exercise, when they could travel, whether “shopping for non-essential items” was illegal and what the difference was between government advice and the law. The inevitable result was arbitrary decisions and a flurry of fines: Lancashire Police issued 123 in the first few days.
The police had, however, dramatically misread the public mood and within a week, the introduction of NPCC guidelines was seen as a partial retreat from many police forces enthusiastically interpreting government advice on what a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home in whatever way they wanted.
This did not, however,. halt the inconsistent and unfair use of police powers. On 2 April we reported the unlawful arrest of a Black woman who had refused to give her name when stopped by British Transport Police in Newcastle and who was tried and convicted – in her absence from the court – for an offence that applies only to people who are potentially infected. A 13 year old child in Leeds had, by this stage, already been detained under the same unlawful interpretation of these powers. Over a month later, in our 15-17 May diary entry, we reported on news that a Crown Prosecution Service review had found all prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act had been unlawful.
As Easter approached in mid April, there was the first of another recurring aspect of the lockdown: the apocalyptic advanced warnings that the public were failing to listen to government advice, followed soon afterwards by ample evidence that the opposite was true.
Over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, police chiefs were already complaining that they were seen by the public as the “villains of the pandemic”, just as they prepared to force hundreds of people to return home. This was the weekend a police van in south London was spotted driving around a largely empty park blaring out the instruction, “no sunbathing… exercise only”. In Glasgow, a disabled woman returning home with very heavy groceries was threatened with a fine for sitting down to rest because she “wasn’t exercising”. More dramatically, Netpol shared a series of videos from an incident in Fallowfield in Manchester showing the violent arrest of a man who was delivering food to his mother.
By this stage, it had become obvious, as the French journal Le Monde diplomatique noted in June in its assessment of Britain’s quarantine measures2, that in urban areas “those who own their own homes… have generally been able to weather lockdown… but the greater number who lives in flats have struggled to maintain good mental health in compressed domestic spaces.”
Public parks and outdoor spaces suddenly became even more essential to our health and well-being, especially in cities like London where almost half of homes are either purpose-built flats or cramped house conversions. In July, the think-tank Resolution Foundation reported3 that younger age groups are more likely to live in a damp home, have no garden or to live in a derelict or congested neighbourhood than older generations. Black, Asian and ethnic minority children in England are more than twice as likely as white children to live in a home with no garden.
Only a few weeks into the lockdown was the point, however, when there was widespread frustration over the decision to close Brockwell Park, a 126-acre public space in south London, because of contested social distancing infractions. On 7 April, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, gave a statement saying that people who refused to leave public spaces would be forced to. The same day, we reported on a large group of officers disrupting (and kicking) people practising yoga in London Fields in Hackney, on the basis that this was “pretending to exercise”. Our diary has subsequently documented numerous other incidents of this kind. Yet again, however, it was public pressure and condemnation that forced authorities to reopen these public spaces within a matter of days.
That first month exposed for many how the role of the police is invariably less about solving crime and more about imposing whatever the government of the day decides is the prevailing social order. Senior officers were implementing the sweeping powers they had been given in the way that they thought ministers wanted them to, rather than on the basis of what the law actually says, let alone on common sense. At the same time, calls to check on situations likely to lead to genuine and serious risks of increasing the spread of infection, such as on building sites or in the garment industry in Leicester, were completely ignored.
It was increasingly apparent, too, that the rules were not applied fairly or equally. There was (and remains) enormous focus on Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, travelling from London to his parents’ home in Durham while suspected of having the coronavirus. One scientific advisor to the government said at the time that it had “trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19”.
However, perhaps the moment that caused more widespread public damage for the police’s credibility came a month earlier. This was at the high point of the rigorous and often arbitrary enforcement of social distancing and movement restrictions in parks and beauty spots around the country. There was universal condemnation of police officers gathering on Westminster Bridge to ‘Clap For Carers’ in flagrant disregard for these same rules. It was difficult to argue that this police behaviour was the result of a lack of supervision, when the Metropolitan Police Commissioner herself was present in person.
As the Cummings affair dominated the news, it was already clear too in May that police in some parts of the country were handing out up to 26 times more coronavirus lockdown fines than officers in others amid a “postcode lottery” of enforcement. Another indicator of unfairness and inequality was the ethnicity breakdown of fines that were issued. In the 2-3 May entry of our diary, we expressed concerns that the NPCC in reporting demographic data was downplaying the disproportionate fining of people from Black and particularly Asian communities. In our 26-27 May entry, we highlighted confirmation of this: Black, Asian and minority communities in England are 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus rules than white people, according to an analysis by Liberty4. At the start of June, figures from the Metropolitan Police showed 48.6% were issued to Black or Asian Londoners.
With so much attention on the use of new emergency powers, it has been important to remember that much of every day policing remained business as usual. This included detaining people on fabricated charges: a viral video was widely circulated showing a Lancashire Police officer, later suspended, threatening to arrest a young man, saying “who are they going to believe, me or you?”
Anecdotally, we were also hearing stories that under the cloak of the lockdown, the police were increasingly targeting young black men for drugs-related searches, often very aggressively. In mid May this was confirmed by stop and search figures from the Metropolitan Police showing a surge in the use of these existing police powers during the lockdown, a rise of 22%. Two-thirds of these stops were for drugs and the number of stops per 100,000 increased from 7.2 to 9.3 for Black people.
Were senior officers aware of the growing resentment at this combination of disproportionate and confrontational policing? As the first steps towards easing the lockdown started in May, there was widespread coverage given to police unions complaining about how the new rules meant the police’s “hands were tied” over issuing fines. They seemed to resent limits on the use of these powers, but what this also appeared to reflect was uncertainty among senior officers about what the government wanted or that they retained public support. The one area where the Home Office was clear was in offering vocal political support for public order interventions against large gatherings – from raves to block parties and initially, anyone taking part in protests.
What nobody could have predicted, however, was the spread of global solidarity over the death of George Floyd in police custody in the US and how, even amidst fears of infection from the coronavirus, this captured the imagination in particular of young Black people in Britain who had never taken part in a protest before.
The reasons why Black Lives Matter protests took off will undoubtedly keep academics busy for years. However, it does seem reasonable to us to conclude that one key factor was the opportunity handed to British police forces – by the most sweeping restrictions on civil liberties for generations – to exacerbate unfair, disproportionate, often violent and invariably discriminatory policing.
Arguably more than many other recent protests, the demonstrations that started in London and Cardiff at the end of May were in many instances as much about protesters’ own experiences as they were about one man’s horrifying death thousands of miles away in Minnesota. Despite all the petty indignities we have documented in rural areas, it has been racist policing in cities that has come up time and again in the diary entries we produced. After two months of police constantly harassing young people, especially from Black and other minority communities, on urban streets and in public spaces under rules that were often incomprehensible, many had simply had enough.
As Adam Elliott-Cooper of The Monitoring Group, discussing the huge Black Lives Matter protests all over Britain on 8 June told Sky News: “If Met police chiefs are so concerned about social distancing, then why were stop and searches at a nine-year high last month – spreading the virus for the sake of small quantities of cannabis?”
What seemed to reinforce the idea that, despite claiming to have listened to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police have learnt almost nothing from the three months of lockdown, was the use of tactics against protests that were excessive and unlawful, followed by racially stereotypical depictions of mainly Black protesters as “violent thugs”.
We have documented how the same language is used repeatedly in the increasingly dire warnings that lockdown parties “could provoke considerable unrest”, culminating in the police clashing with residents in Brixton and Tottenham and with people arrested and officers injured. We have reported too on how, instead of de-escalation, the police have chosen to fuel the fear of a repeat of the London 2011 riots.
As early as 20 April, Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, was warning that police must prepare for a “more volatile and agitated society” after the end of the lockdown. If this prediction becomes true, there is one conclusion that future researchers might draw from the dozens of diary entries we have written. The policing of the lockdown, driven by a reflex instinct to impose order as the government’s public health strategy became increasingly chaotic, may have contributed directly to making an agitated society more likely.
Kevin Blowe is the coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) and a member of the Haldane Society. Eveline Lubbers is a researcher for the Undercover Research Group.
On 30 September the government issued new restrictions for the north-east and north-west of England which effectively come down to local lockdowns. Banning gatherings of more than two households and… singing in groups of more than 2 in a “public house, café, restaurant or bar”.
On 28 September, after repeated encouragement from ministers (including Home Secretary Priti Patel) to inform on neighbours for alleged breaches of coronavirus rules, the government made it an offence with a £1000 fine for “falsely stating … that someone is a close contact of a person who has tested positive for coronavirus”, making it illegal to maliciously attempt to use the system to force an enemy into self-isolation.
As Netpol noted, this is almost a belated recognition that treating neighbours like the “enemy” isn’t the best way “to encourage community self-help, mutual aid and solidarity – all the values the public was praised for at the start of the lockdown”.
Since the introduction of huge fines for large gatherings, the NPCC says 20 fixed penalty notices have been issued for holding a gathering of more than thirty people. Since our last blog entry, these include a fine for a wedding celebration at a marquee on land on the outskirts of Leeds, another wedding venue in Shropshire, another in Manchester and a music event in Liverpool.
Two Police Scotland officers turned up at a 10-year-old girl’s birthday party after a neighbour reported the family for allegedly breaking coronavirus rules. Her mum is now on an “alert list”.
This prompted one conservative website, which has previously called for the curbing of environmental and Black Lives Matter protests, to condemn the “shocking police attack on free speech“.
On 30 September, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) released new figures on the policing of coronavirus regulations, which confirm that in total 18,912 fixed penalty notices were recorded as issued in England and Wales between Friday 27 March and Monday 21 September. A total of 179 were for localised restrictions in England, with 128 were issued in Greater Manchester, 26 in Lancashire and 25 in Leicester.
The NPCC has also confirmed that there has been mass non-payment of coronavirus fines, which is likely to place a further strain on the courts with potentially thousands of extra hearings. According to NPCC figures, a total of 8,441 (53%) have not paid in England and 972 (36%) have not paid in Wales.
There was another avalanche of changes in the coronavirus regulations over the last week, in advance of predictions of the second wave of infections and the next lockdown looming. While we will point at good summaries here, our concern is – as ever – the enforcement by the police.
There remains a complete lack of lessons learned from the earlier lockdown and the government is still approaching the pandemic as a public order issue, rather than a health crisis. This – again – means threats, fines and a push to for the public to snitch on each other, rather than a focus on solidarity, community support and a serious effort to solve access to health care.
Unfortunately, this also means there is a need to continue this blog, to log abuse by the police and misunderstandings of the regulation.
Coercion failed before, it was rightly seen as arbitrary, unfair and in many cases unlawful, but Boris Johnson now says the military could help to enforce the new corona rules.
Any social gathering of more than six people in England is against the law, with people facing fines of up to £3,200 if they do not abide by the new measure, which applies to both indoor and outdoor settings.
On Wednesday, the English face-covering regulations changed again. From Thursday, 24th September, shopworkers and other staff who come into contact with the public are now required to wear a covering. All penalties are doubled to £200. The updated Wikipedia page includes the exemptions.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on the human rights implications of COVID19 measures on 21 September. The report is the most comprehensive account to date of the human rights issues which have occurred over the lockdown. Its conclusions cover the ambiguity and mixed messaging of government communications; the discrepancy between guidance and regulations; the lack of clarity from ministers; the lack of public understanding; policing and prosecution issues; fixed penalty notices and the egregious lack of an appeal process; the use of emergency powers and the detrimental impact on the right to protest.
With regard to the key focus of this blog, the report says on policing:
“… it is imperative that Government provide sufficient warning of changes to the law, and coordinate with appropriate bodies, so that police forces and bodies such as the NPCC [National Police Chiefs Council] and CoP [College of Policing] have time to understand and explain those changes.”
On fixed penalty notices, it says:
“There is currently no realistic way for people to challenge FPNs which can now result in fines of over £10,000 in some cases. This will invariably lead to injustice as members of the public who have been unfairly targeted with an FPN have no means of redress and police will know that their actions are unlikely to be scrutinised. The Government should introduce a means of challenging FPNs by way of administrative review or appeal.”
As Netpol noted, we have moved from mutual aid to mutual mistrust: six months of relying on coercion to control the spread of coronavirus has led to police apparently inundated with calls from members of the public reporting their neighbours for “rule of six” breaches.
From 28 September, people failing to self-isolate if testing positive for the coronavirus or if contacted by the test and trace system will face fines starting at £1000. Again, police will target “offenders in high-incidence areas” based on neighbours snitching on each other.
The government’s new “Rule of Six” has dominated the COVID19 agenda over this week. Announced by the Prime Minister on Wednesday last week to come into force on Monday 14 September, the actual text of the new regulations was published only minutes before midnight on Sunday.
This is even tighter than the introduction of previous regulation changes – and yet again, it has taken place without parliamentary debate or scrutiny.
Since Monday, social gatherings of more than six people (apart from in a wide range of exceptions) are illegal, with people facing fines of up to £3,200 if they do not abide by the measure in indoor and outdoor settings.
The regulations are not just government guidance this time but created by secondary legislation powers – and are again more complicated than before. Even Home Secretary Priti Patel seemed to have lost track of them when on BBC Radio4 Today she was asked if a family of four stopping and chatting with another family of four on the way to the park, she suggested this was “mingling” which is now banned; it is not. Barrister Adam Wagner, who has been trying to understand the ever-changing regulation, has tried to explain what constitutes ‘mingling’, a central theme in the new rules.
The tougher coronavirus rules also include “Covid Secure Marshals” to help enforce them. Boris Johnson encouraged councils to recruit them, use volunteers or existing council staff, but few seemed to have established the roles, The Guardian noted – let alone understand what the Johnson meant with it and where funding would come from.
Importantly, these marshals will have no enforcement powers, which has managed to annoy the Metropolitan Police Federation, its chairman saying it won’t make any difference if you don’t have the ability to enforce.
The Wikipedia article by Michael Maggs on the English Rule of Six regulations includes full details of all the exemptions. It includes a useful table which, under types of gathering makes a useful distinction between ‘Elite sportspeople and coaches’ and ‘Organised non-elite sports’ – which one may think is a joke, but the elite-rule is in the actual law.
Freedom News has produced a thorough summary of the latest regulations in a post entitled Activism and the law (5 Sep), stating: ‘One of the difficulties of writing anything useful about the law at the moment is that it’s changing so damned quickly. Coronavirus regulations have to be reviewed by the government every 28 days and as a result, we are locked into a rapid refresh cycle in which new, rushed and poorly-drafted laws are imposed on the public – without parliamentary scrutiny – every couple of weeks.’
Freedom News’ section on the current rules on protests lists the three provisions that are setting out the necessary conditions a protest needs to meet in order to qualify as lawful at this moment in time:
‘There are a number of important exceptions to the general prohibition on both holding – and participating in – gatherings of more than 30 people. Importantly, for our purposes, Regulation 5B(4) stipulates that the prohibition on holding or being involved in the holding of gatherings doesn’t apply if the gathering organiser —
(i) is a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution, a public body or a political body,
(ii) has carried out a risk assessment which would satisfy the requirements of regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999(1), whether or not they are subject to those Regulations, and
(iii) has taken all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, taking into account the risk assessment carried out under paragraph (ii).
The reference to a “political body” in 5B(4)(i) is crucial, as it is this provision which allows for the possibility of lawful protests involving over 30 people.’
While the rules themselves are a balancing act between public health and other human rights, the inconsistent way the police applies them seem to part of a policy attacking the right to freedom of assembly.
On Saturday afternoon various groups under the umbrella of Palestine Action gathered to protest outside the head office of Elbit Systems – an Israeli-owned arms company. There were no more than 50 people, and some of those were holding a banner on the opposite side of the road. Police arrived in large numbers – at least 30, and announced that the Greater London Authority (GLA) had issued instructions this weekend to disperse any gatherings of more than 30 people.
As can be seen in this film by Real Media, the police liaison officers assigned to the action seemed to be making up rules as they went along. A spokesperson for the Mayor of London confirmed the police were lying about the new GLA instructions:
‘This is simply not true. Operational policing decisions are a matter for the Metropolitan Police and are taken independently of the Mayor.’
Barrister Adam Wagner in his take on the new rules warns against the chilling effect of the £10,000 mandatory fine for anyone who is found to be “holding” or “involved in the holding” (whatever that means) of a gathering which doesn’t come within the exceptions mentioned above. Many will think twice about organising a protest that would risk the existence of their organisation, financially.
Meanwhile, the official Twitter account of the Prime Minister put out this misleading tweet (using the NHS logo):
As pointed out above, many gatherings of more than 30 people are perfectly legal, if organised by a business, charity, public authority or political body doing a risk assessment and complying with social distancing guidance.
On 4 September, it was reported that Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had been warned they risk a large fine if they fail to comply with these rules, with the Metropolitan Police saying risk assessments “did not meet the required standard”. It is unclear how the police are qualified to make this kind of health assessment.
However, perhaps surprisingly given the enthusiastic enforcement of other powers, The Guardian reported that by 8 August just 10 enforcement orders were issued for breach of UK quarantine rules, while the National Police Chiefs Association reported three fines were issued in August to those failing to self-isolate after arriving in England (there might be an overlap in these figures).
In Merseyside, a train passenger has been charged with threatening behaviour and assaulting a police officer after a row broke out because he refused to wear a face mask. British Transport Police has subsequently said they were responding to allegations the man had been coughing at two other passengers, although a widely-circulated viral video seems to show officers enforcing the masking regulations and the passenger claiming he was exempt from them.
The ways the powers are used in this instance was completely disproportional, as regulations allow political gatherings when organisers provide the required risk assessment. Piers Corbyn plans to challenge the fine in court and says he filled out the necessary forms after two weeks of negotiating with the police. It’s hard to see what issuing this fine achieved, apart from sending a chilling warning to other protest organisers.
Corbyn’s fine comes after the Met last week dropped a threat to investigate the organiser of another protest on suspicion of breaching coronavirus regulations. Police wrote to Ken Hinds, a community activist based in Haringey, north London, after he asked them to help facilitate a protest march from Notting Hill to Hyde Park on Sunday, warning him that by merely publicising the protest he may have already broken the law.
On Wednesday, Dyfed-Powys Police used powers to disperse a group of about 200 young people gathering in Burry Port, near Llanelli. The force said it had intelligence to suggest a further gathering was being planned over the bank holiday weekend.
A number of raves were broken up over the weekend, with parties in the middle of nowhere ended by the police or officers staying at the premises to keep an eye on things.
A rural rave in south Wales at Banwen attracted 3,000 people from around Britain, with the two organisers receiveing a £10,000 fixed penalty fine each. Officers also penalised people for “using their vehicles in an antisocial manner” near the site of the rave in Neath Port Talbot.
Police in Harlow, Essex, also seized thousands of pounds worth of gear ahead of an unlicensed music event on Saturday afternoon. They are looking for the organiser to take them to court. Ch Insp Lewis Basford has clearly chosen for a no-nonsense approach, saying: “My final message is to the organisers: we will seize the equipment – I don’t care if you’ve hired it from someone or if it’s yours, we will break up your event, and we can now fine you up to £10,000.”
West Midlands Police said it had dealt with about 90 reports of possible breaches of restrictions, but had not had to use its enforcement powers as they were mainly dealing with house parties.
Attention is now focused on how planned Extinction Rebellion demonstrations will be policed this week. (If you are taking part in next week’s XRebellionUK protests in London, Cardiff and Manchester, let us know if you experience oppressive policing, please get in touch with Netpol.)
In this thread, Wagner explains that it is already unlawful to participate in gatherings of over 30 people in private dwellings or public places subject to some pretty detailed exceptions – but if you are caught doing that, the fines start at £100 and can rise to £3,200 for six offences.
What the new regulations seek is to massively up the ante for those who ‘hold or [are] involved in the holding of a gathering’ – they now risk getting a £10,000 fine, whether it’s a rave or another event of more than 30 people. Political gatherings are exempt, but cooperation with the police is required and filling out a risk assesment for the event is obligatory. But still then – as the events of this week show – you run the risk of getting into problems.