Fines of up to £10,000 for failure to self-isolate could be “counterproductive” and “undermine adherence” to the rules, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has warned.
Professor Susan Michie said that the “punitive” and “inequitable” new fines will hit the poorest hardest and risk undermining trust in the track and trace system.
It has also been suggested that it could deter people from getting tests or revealing that they have symptoms so that they avoid the punishment.
The new fines - starting at £1,000 for a breach and rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders - apply to anyone who fails to self-isolate after being contacted by the NHS's Test and Trace teams from Monday next week.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, (in video below) on Sunday insisted the new rules were essential. Data shows people are breaking the rules when it is “mission critical” that they do not leave their home.
Evidence published by Sage shows that four in five people who have been told to isolate fail to follow the rules in their entirety.
But Professor Michie, who sits on both Sage and its sub-group SPI-B, said Ministers have repeatedly been warned that the way to increase compliance is to enable and support people to isolate and only enforce fines as a last resort .
She told the Telegraph: “It will set up resentment and divisions. If things are perceived not to be fair then this undermines trust , in turn undermines adherence. The fines could actually be counterproductive by alienating people.”
The main reasons for non-compliance are needing to go out to work, particularly for those on low incomes, and having caring responsibilities outside the home and therefore proper financial support packages are needed to help people isolate, Professor Michie said.
“None of these things have been done by the Government in the way we have advised over literally months,” she said.
She said that heavy fines undermine trust and “the more trust you have the more adherence you have”.
Her comments are backed by a paper considered by Sage which concludes that trust “may be particularly important for engagement in government test and track systems, with perceived credibility of government associated with likelihood of self-isolating.”
Some attempt has been made to compensate those on the lowest income who are impacted by the new rules, with a £500 payment available for those on benefits who have been asked to isolate from September 28.
However, people could wait weeks to get the backdated payments as the systems which will be administered by local authorities have not yet been set up.
The new rules have also provoked backlash from MPs, with Andrew Brigden, the MP for North West Leicestershire warning: "People just won't come forward for testing. That is the probable unintended consequence of that rule.”
Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, said: "Measures to tackle the coronavirus will only be effective if the public chooses to cooperate. Heavy handed authoritarian measures have not worked so far. We should instead be looking to work with the public, treating them as adults, and relying on common sense and good judgement."
Police ordered to check on compliance
Police will be ordered out on patrol in areas with the highest infections to check compliance whilst neighbours also asked to report their suspicions.
A senior policing source said there was a “real sense that the Home Office is exasperated with people not doing their bit particularly around the test and trace programme where they have been told to self-isolate.”
This was a point also made by Boris Johnson at his meeting with police chiefs two weeks ago where there was “some frustration expressed by the Government that they wanted more enforcement.”
“The £10,000 fines are going to be reserved for employers who are forcing, threatening or cajoling their staff to come back into work even if they have been told to self-isolate,” the source said.
“One of the things we have said to the Government is that we need to manage expectations about what the police can do. We are way up to capacity and beyond (dealing with levels of crime now back to pre-Covid levels). In fairness to the Government, they have listened to that and they have said local authorities will be the filter between test and trace and the police.
“Any potential enforcement should go via the local authority in the first instance. It could be the local authorities are able to levy the fines themselves.”
But it is feared that the action taken by authorities will vary across the country, with some taking responsibility and others simply calling in the police.
It came as a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights said it was "unacceptable" that "many thousands" were receiving fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for breaches of the coronavirus rules despite evidence the police did not fully understand their powers and with no means of redress.