The Coronavirus Act 2020 (“the Coronavirus Act”) and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions (England)) Regulations 2020 ("the Regulations") came into force on 25 and 26 March 2020 respectively.
The legislation was passed in order to enforce compliance with Government guidance designed to restrict the movement of people with the aim of limiting the spread of Covid-19 in the UK. The powers given to the police are broadly defined and highly restrictive. This has led to concerns about how the new powers will be used.
Powers granted by the legislation
Powers under the Act
The Coronavirus Act enables the Secretary of State to provide directions which prohibit or restrict events, gatherings, and entering and remaining on premises in England. There are similar rules for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Most businesses which would be affected by directions voluntarily closed or postponed events prior to the Coronavirus Act coming into force, such as the Glastonbury festival. There are no published examples yet of directions given to individual businesses. Instead, enforcement is being carried out under the Regulations.
Powers under the Regulations
The Regulations set out which businesses must close their premises to the public, such as pubs and restaurants, and which are permitted to remain open, such as supermarkets. Local authorities have the power to issue prohibition notices to shut down businesses breaching the Regulations. Prohibition notices have been served on a number of businesses around the country, including several pubs and a garden centre in Exeter. In addition to the closure of the business, senior managers and directors can be subject to prosecution where the Regulations are breached with their consent, connivance or neglect.
Individuals are not permitted to leave home without "reasonable excuse". The list of reasonable excuses includes, among other things:
- obtaining basic necessities;
- exercising alone or with members of the household;
- providing care or assistance to a vulnerable person; and
- travelling for work where it is not possible to do so from home.
When outside the home, gatherings of more than two people are prohibited. There are limited exceptions including for members of the same household or where the gathering is essential for work purposes.
The police are responsible for enforcing the Regulations on individuals and have the power:
- to direct gatherings to disperse;
- to direct any person contravening the Regulations to return home; and
- to remove any person contravening the Regulations to their home.
The police are permitted to use reasonable force if necessary.
Contravention of the Regulations is an offence punishable in the Magistrates' Court by a fine. On Monday 30 March at Stockport Magistrates' Court, a man was convicted and fined £500 plus costs.
The police also have the power to issue a Fixed Penalty Notice ("FPN") if they reasonably believe that an offence has been committed and the person committing the offence is over 18 years of age. A FPN will be £60, reduced by half if paid within 30 days, with the amount doubled for each subsequent FPN up to a maximum of £960.
Police guidance on enforcement
There has been a great deal of media scrutiny on the way the police are exercising the new powers. For example, police forces have been criticised for setting up vehicle checkpoints and using drones to share photographs of members of the public who are outside the home.
The College of Policing has published guidance ("the Guidance") which advises the police to follow a four-step process when enforcing the Regulations. These steps are: engage; explain; encourage; and enforce.
The Guidance encourages the use of common sense and stresses that enforcement should be a last resort. The police are also advised to be aware of potential safeguarding issues and to apply normal processes if they suspect that it may not be safe for a person to return home.
Relationship with Government guidance
In some cases, the Government guidance is more restrictive than the legislation. For example, although Government guidance states that individuals are only permitted to leave the house once per day for exercise, there is no fixed limit under the Regulations. Similarly, the Government has been forced to clarify that there is no fixed limit on how often people may leave the home to shop for essentials.
It would appear that the Government is using the guidance to encourage the public to stay indoors and this is leading to an overstatement of the legislation. Given the indeterminate length of time the legislation is in place for, we expect to see more and more media headlines on the subject.
If your business requires assistance in responding to the coronavirus outbreak Addleshaw Goddard LLP are able to advise on how to respond and prepare a business response plan in relation to coronavirus. Our Coronavirus insights and briefing can be found here.
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