Coronavirus Act's criminal offences must be repealed, campaigners say after 141 people unlawfully prosecuted

More than 50 Tory MPs could revolt in Wednesday’s vote over whether to extend ‘indefensible, draconian detention powers’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 29 September 2020 20:15 BST
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Police enforcing lockdown restrictions speak to a sunbather in a London park
Police enforcing lockdown restrictions speak to a sunbather in a London park (EPA)

Campaigners have called for criminal offences created by the Coronavirus Act to be scrapped after the law was wrongly used to prosecute 141 people.

MPs will vote on whether to renew the act, which contains “some of the most sweeping powers seen in modern times”, on Wednesday amid threats of a Tory revolt.

It gives police the power to direct “potentially infectious persons” to a place suitable for screening and assessment, and take them by force if they refuse.

The law makes it a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 to refuse a direction, escape or provide false information.

But the Coronavirus Act has not been used lawfully in a single criminal case since it came into force on 25 March, according to a review by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

By the end of August, 141 people had been wrongly charged in England and Wales, and documents seen by The Independent show numerous cases under schedule 21 of the act are still underway.

Most prosecutions are being withdrawn before they reach court but some people have been unlawfully convicted, including a woman who was fined £660 for a crime she had not committed.

Several human rights groups are campaigning for schedule 21 of the act, which creates criminal offences, to be repealed.

Gracie Bradley, Liberty’s policy and campaigns manager, said the powers were “ripe for misuse”.

“Meanwhile rules to close borders, suspend elections and relax care standards are the greatest threat to our rights and freedoms in a generation,” she added.

“The Coronavirus Act is at the centre of the government’s criminal justice pandemic response – but it’s not too late to change course.

“Tomorrow, MPs must take the opportunity to scrap the Coronavirus Act and make way for a proper public health approach which protects human rights.”

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Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, told The Independent: “The breathtaking detention powers in the Act are a proven risk to rights and justice in our country.

“For any law to have a 100 per cent unlawful prosecution rate is unacceptable, dangerous and frankly embarrassing.

“It's vital that the health secretary repeals these indefensible, draconian detention powers.”

Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister, said the Coronavirus Act had not so far been “required to manage a potentially infectious person”.

She added: “This Act is the result of misplaced policy as to laws required to police the pandemic. It should be repealed or people will continue to be wrongly prosecuted. This is damaging for the individual and for an already pummelled rule of law.”

The Coronavirus Act was drawn up at a time when the virus’ threat was mainly perceived to come from abroad, and dedicated “places suitable for screening and assessment” where infectious people could be detained have never been set up.

Numerous sets of Health Protection Regulations were later introduced under a separate law to enforce the lockdown, restrictions on gatherings, the wearing of face masks, quarantine and other measures.

Jodie Blackstock, legal director of the Justice charity, said there was a lack of clarity on what amounts to a criminal offence under multiple coronavirus laws.

She added: “A vast array of offences have been introduced in response to the virus, some carrying significant fines. Rather than criminalising the public, the government should be focussing on a public health response to keeping everyone safe.”

The Coronavirus Act contains numerous sections that have been used by authorities, including allowing remote court hearings, delays to elections, changes to health and social care provision, access to education and sick pay.

In a report released last week, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said scrutiny had been fast-tracked “despite the fact the act included some of the most sweeping powers seen in modern times, and interferes with human rights on an unprecedented scale”.

The committee said the powers to detain potentially infectious persons were “subject to abuse” and allowed people to be legally detained for 28 days without appeal.

“The government must justify why it is necessary and proportionate for these extraordinary powers to remain law,” the report added.

“It must provide evidence to parliament that these powers are necessary for the prevention of the spread of Covid-19 and that the power to prosecute is not being misapplied. In the absence of any clear evidence to support the retention of these powers, they ought to be repealed.”

The committee also called for changes to the law to narrow the scope of criminal offences, including reviewing the definition of a “potentially infectious person”, limiting who can exercise the powers and creating a right to appeal.

Members said their report aimed to inform the six-month review of the Coronavirus Act, which was only debated for one day in the House of Commons before coming into force in March.

They added: “We expect any extension to the expiry date of the Coronavirus Act provisions to be subject to parliamentary debate and approval before, not after, any extension comes into effect.”

Boris Johnson has appealed to Tory MPs not to vote against its extension on Wednesday after more than 50 signalled that they could revolt.

“Nobody wants to do these kinds of things,” the prime minister told a press conference in Exeter on Tuesday.

“If we all work together and get this thing down, get this virus down, then we can keep going with our strategy, keep education open, keep the economy moving and work for the day, as I say, when I believe that those medical scientific improvements will truly deliver the long-term liberation we need.”

Mr Johnson has committed to more regular debates on coronavirus in the Commons and promised that MPs will be able to question the government's scientific advisers more regularly.

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