Coronavirus Rules: “Quite complicated and confusing”

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As further relaxation of COVID restrictions are delayed, anyone might be forgiven for forgetting what restrictions are actually in force. There are numerous new laws and amendments to existing ones. The Government itself has described it as ‘quite complicated and confusing’. You can travel in a packed Tube train (albeit masked, of course) but you cannot be part of an indoor gathering of over more than six persons or two households. There are numerous such quirks, contradictions and idiosyncrasies.

In addition, as we have previously flagged up, there is a difference between rules (‘you must’) and guidance (‘you should’). What one might think is a rule is in fact guidance and vice versa.

Keeping track

The changes to be introduced from June 21 typify how hard it is to monitor the law as well as the guidance.

From that date, for example, there is a change in the rules governing wedding / civil partnership ceremonies and celebrations. The limit on attendees is removed and the maximum attendance will be based on COVID risk assessments and measures in place to mitigate its spread. The basic framework is:

  • more than 30 guests can attend a wedding held outside or in a secure public venue
  • no maximum number of guests but social distancing rules must be adhered to (in practice dictating how many people can attend)
  • table service remains
  • dancing/singing restrictions remain
  • face coverings to be worn indoors by everyone when not eating or drinking, save where exempt
  • private settings also need risk assessments to determine guest numbers (in private garden “outdoors” = at least 50% of walled area open)
  • no weddings in enclosed structures in private gardens or indoors at private houses (save urgent marriage where party being married is seriously ill and not expected to recover).

Straightforward? Not entirely – and only by carefully applying the regulations to a given set of facts can one see if something is permitted or not. It is hardly surprising that enforcement of countless COVID regulations has proved difficult to carry out.

Who enforces coronavirus regulations, if you get it wrong?  What are the penalties if you do not get it right – as an individual or a business?

There are different areas of laws: lockdown at home, staying local or remain in the UK; face covering (on public transport, at work and public spaces); quarantining; self-isolation. And, there are various enforcers: not only the Police but also bodies including local government, transport operators (TfL), Border Force, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and more.

Prosecution has been a controversial area – there have been numerous incorrectly charged cases said to be about 21% or 313 out of 1,526 cases to 30th April 2021.  From January to April 2021, the error rate was incredibly high – between 25% and 33%.

It is the case that where any fixed penalty is issued or any prosecution occurs the application of the law to the facts should be carefully looked at. There is a substantial statistical chance that the basis of the case is legally flawed. There may very well be a defence. The alleged offence may not exist. The regulations may not have been in force at the alleged time. There may be an exemption or relaxation to be deployed as a defence and so forth.

Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs)

The Police have been authorised to deploy Fixed Penalty Notices and 115,203 were issued in England and Wales to 16th May 2021.  Interestingly, Police issued a larger number of them in the third national lockdown than they did in the first.  In total, there were more issued in the third than in the first and second lockdowns combined.

Non-lockdown penalties have been much fewer in number:

  • 3,678 for lack of face coverings
  • 666 international travel rule breaches
  • 165 for breaches of self-isolation regulations.

Enforcement by Local Authorities

The Coronavirus powers given to Local Authorities are intended to ensure businesses comply with the coronavirus rules.  In essence, these are health and safety-related.  They can:

  • issue a Coronavirus Improvement Notice – premises have 48 hours to rapidly implement COVID-secure measures
  • issue a Coronavirus Immediate Restriction Notice – initial closure of 48 hours to give the premises that pose a public health risk time to put in necessary safeguards
  • issue a Coronavirus Restriction Notice – closure of premises for 7 days
  • prosecute.

Local Authorities can also issue Fixed Penalty Notices for £2,000 or £4,000 for failure to comply with coronavirus Notices.

Of course, businesses operating premises of any kind have Health and Safety duties to ensure the welfare of own staff and third parties. This extends to COVID issues.

Enforcement – other bodies

In addition to Police Officers and Local Authorities, others can issue Fixed Penalties for coronavirus offences in specific areas:

  • if passengers fail to wear face coverings on public transport, Transport for London (TFL) Enforcement Officers can issue Fixed Penalties
  • it is a requirement to fill out a “Passenger Locator” Form when entering the UK – a failure to do so is enforced by Border Force.  In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority can issue penalties to commercial travel services.

Fixed Penalties – amounts payable

Fixed penalties are an alternative to prosecution. If a person declines to pay or wishes to contest the offence then the matter will be dealt with through the issuing of a summons to Court:

  • Lockdown – illegal raves/ 30+ events –  £10,000
  • Lockdown – attempt to leave UK without reasonable excuse – £5,000
  • Lockdown – large gatherings 15+ people £800 (doubles for further offence to max £6,400)
  • Lockdown – gatherings/movement restrictions £200 (ditto to max £6,400)
  • Travel – failure to present Travel Declaration Form £200
  • Travel – failure to wear face coverings £200
  • Failure to quarantine £1,000
  • Failure to quarantine at hotel £5,000
  • Failure to provide Passenger Locator Form/coronavirus test £500
  • Failure to possess coronavirus testing package on arrival in UK £1,000
  • Failure to obtain a testing package £2,000
  • Failure to take coronavirus tests £1,000
  • Obstructing quarantine enforcement £1,000
  • Providing misleading travel information £10,000
  • Failure to self-isolate £1,000/£4,000
  • Failure of work to notify employer of need to self-isolate £50
  • Employer allowing employee to leave place of self-isolation £1,000.

Source: figures used in this article are to be found in House of Commons Library Coronavirus: the lockdown laws published 10 June 2021


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