The coronavirus pandemic arrived in the UK in the spring of 2020 and a raft of emergency measures were brought in to impose a lockdown. But a committee of MPs say the rules were changed so frequently that it was virtually impossible for the general public to keep up.
The House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights has called for a complete review of all 85,000 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) handed out in England since the beginning of coronavirus restrictions in March 2020.
Another 8,000 FPNs were issued by the authorities in Wales.
In their report the committee said the coronavirus rules have been changed at least 65 times since March 2020.
The committee’s report says: “There must be a comprehensive review of all FPNs issued under the coronavirus regulations as soon as is feasible. We have significant concerns about the validity of the FPNs issued, the inadequacies of the review and appeal process, the size of the penalties, and the criminalisation of those who cannot afford to pay.”
They added: “It is also difficult to see why a breach of the coronavirus regulations would be relevant to someone’s future employment prospects or ability to travel to certain countries. We recommend that consideration be given to removing convictions under the coronavirus regulations from criminal records.”
Our most recent report recommended that the Government clarify the legality of protest during lockdown, & that the law be amended to make clear that protest is permitted if conducted in a way that reduces public health risks to an acceptable level. https://t.co/YIT5TCeBPX pic.twitter.com/46Pq682ECP
— UK Parliament Human Rights Committee (@HumanRightsCtte) April 26, 2021
The chair of the committee, veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman, said the police had been given an almost impossible job enforcing the rules but said a “lack of legal clarity” meant the system had been “unfair.”
She said: “(There is) clear evidence that young people, those from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, men, and the most socially deprived, are most at risk. Those who can’t afford to pay face a criminal record along with all the resulting consequences for their future development.”
It is a tenet of English law that “ignorance of the law is no defence.”
But the MPs said it was hard not to be ignorant amid the bewildering changes to laws and guidelines.
The report said: “The government have often produced guidance which differs from the law without making this distinction clear. Furthermore, ministers have made misleading and inaccurate comments about what is and is not allowed under the coronavirus regulations.”
“We were told that a recent survey showed that nine out of ten police officers did not feel the coronavirus regulations were clear,” the report concluded.