Covid rules were confusing and £10,000 fines disproportionate, says Priti Patel


Highly-confusing and complex coronavirus laws were difficult to understand for both the police and the public, former home secretary Dame Priti Patel has said.

The senior Conservative told the Covid inquiry on Thursday that then-health secretary Matt Hancock’s department was entirely behind drawing up the legislation.

Dame Priti criticised the “totally inappropriate” policing of the vigil after the murder of Sarah Everard, as she said £10,000 fines for lockdown breaches was disproportionate.

Former police leader Martin Hewitt was scathing of the laws, citing a time he had to delay enforcement after receiving them just 16 minutes before they were meant to be in place.

He told how it was “incredibly difficult for even a perfectly law-abiding and committed citizen” to abide by the “rapidly” changing laws.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC said the drafting of the laws seemed to be “significantly flawed throughout”.

Dame Priti said drawing up the regulations was “solely the domain” of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which she hit out at for “inflexibility”.

“We were there to actually explain potentially what would work and what wouldn’t work – and there was a lot that didn’t work,” she added.

Dame Priti said that a “completely different system” would need to be in place in future pandemics to prevent the chaos witnessed during Covid.

Mr Keith asked if there was “a high degree of confusion” surrounding the meaning of the “complex” and “difficult to understand” laws throughout the pandemic.

He posed whether they “led to both confusion on the part of the public, on how they could regulate their behaviour, and confusion on the part of the police as to how they might be enforced”.

Dame Priti replied: “I would completely agree.

“I think there would need to be a different system, completely. A totally different system.”

She said that the £10,000 fines introduced for breaches were “very high”.

A handwritten note from Boris Johnson – who received a fixed-penalty notice as prime minister – was displayed showing that he wanted “bigger fines” emphasised as he unwound the first lockdown.

Dame Priti said she had to raise the policing of the vigil to remember Ms Everard when there were clashes with protesters with then-Met Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick.

“I saw the news that night and just felt that that was totally inappropriate policing,” Dame Priti said.

Mr Keith said that she “must have screamed” at the DHSC when they presented new regulations at the “11th hour”.

“And we did,” she replied.

Mr Hewitt, who co-ordinated the coronavirus response between all of the UK’s forces as chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, was also scathing.

He told of a time when regulation was intended to come into force at 12.01am, but “we received the regulations signed off by the secretary of state for health and social care (Mr Hancock) at 11.45”.

“So we had precisely 16 minutes,” he said, despite briefing documents needing to be drawn up and then translated into Welsh before they could be shared with forces.

He said he told Dame Priti “we would not be enforcing that regulation on that day” and that it could take around 36 hours before officers would know what they need to do.

More problems would arise at 7am the following morning when ministers were “spinning round” the television and radio studios talking about this, he said.

Mr Hewitt added that politicians would on “many occasions” go on to “throw a whole degree of confusion out” by mixing up regulation and laws, so he would have to correct the record.

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett criticised legislation giving police the powers to direct people to be tested for Covid-19 and enforce medical directions.

“That’s an extraordinary power to enact, and I shouldn’t criticise our elected representatives but I can’t see the purpose,” she said.

“I see an awful lot of uncertainties, reasonable grounds, whether it’s unpractical, having to have a public health officer. And there are so many reasons why that’s a bad piece of legislation.

“Again I shouldn’t criticise but I am going to.

“It’s something we need to get into whether, or when, we have another pandemic, we have on the books ready to go legislation that’s better than this.”

Mr Hewitt said that the powers were never used but agreed with the chairwoman.

“How on earth one forms a reasonable ground to suggest that somebody has or may be infected with a virus you can’t see seems to me quite a challenge in a practical sense,” he said.