During the Covid inquiry, Priti Patel, the former home secretary said that the £10,000 fines for violating Covid laws on large gatherings were excessively high.
She said that the penalty, introduced before the August bank holiday in 2020, was not proportionate.
Patel, along with her officials at the Home Office, resisted the implementation of this penalty when it was proposed, The BBC reported.
The fines were designed to deter unlawful gatherings of over 30 people during the pandemic, and hundreds of such fines were issued by the police.
In a report by MPs in September 2021, the £10,000 fines for breaching Covid laws on large gatherings were criticised, with the argument that such substantial fines should only be imposed by a court.
However, evidence presented during the Covid inquiry highlighted the fines’ role in the government’s strategy to promote compliance.
Also, a handwritten note from former prime minister Boris Johnson indicated his desire to emphasise these fines when easing restrictions in the summer of 2020.
“I agree with the openings, but the OVERRIDING MESSAGE should be about tougher enforcement and BIGGER FINES,” it read.
The inquiry’s lawyer highlighted the “crushing irony” of the memo, pointing out that Mr. Johnson had received a £50 fine for violating different Covid-era restrictions in April of the previous year.
According to National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) data from June 2021, police forces in England and Wales issued 366 fines of £10,000.
In their 2021 report, MPs on the Commons justice committee advised against the government relying on substantial spot fines to enforce public health laws, adding that police couldn’t consider people’s financial circumstances.
In her testimony, Patel expressed her belief that the policing of the 2021 vigil to commemorate murder victim Sarah Everard was “totally inappropriate.”
The Met faced criticism for its handling of the unofficial event, where hundreds gathered on Clapham Common, south London, following the cancellation of a planned event.
The force was later found to have violated the rights of the organisers, leading to an apology and damages paid to two women arrested at the event.
A WhatsApp message presented at the inquiry from Lord Frost, who was a Cabinet Office minister at the time, indicated government concerns about the regulations.
The message read, “Truth is the rules on outside gatherings are close to unenforceable and are evidently being widely ignored in all kinds of contexts now.”
Patel acknowledged that the Covid regulations had caused confusion for both the public and police. However, she mentioned that drafting the legislation was “solely the domain” of Matt Hancock’s health department.
In a preceding testimony, former police leader Martin Hewitt said that forces had found it challenging to keep up with the numerous rule changes.
Hewitt, who led the national police chiefs’ council during the pandemic, also suggested that officers should have been consulted more frequently during the drafting of rules.
Hewitt further said that in one instance, officers had to postpone enforcement of a new Covid regulation due to receiving only 16 minutes’ notice before it legally took effect.
He also pointed out that ministers had contributed to “confusion” among the public by blending laws and guidance in media interviews.