Government refuses to abolish coronavirus law used unlawfully in every prosecution

More than 50 people have so far been wrongly charged under the 'draconian' Coronavirus Act

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 28 June 2020 16:08 BST
The Coronavirus Act was the first package of covid-related laws to come into force in Britain
The Coronavirus Act was the first package of covid-related laws to come into force in Britain

The government is refusing to repeal a “draconian” coronavirus law – despite it being used to wrongly prosecute scores of people.

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).

Human rights lawyers and campaigners have condemned the creation of “unnecessary” new offences, which have been used against children and vulnerable people.

They include a woman who was fined £660 for a crime she had not committed, five days after the Coronavirus Act became law. Charges have so far been withdrawn or overturned for 53 people and more cases are being reviewed.

Gregor McGill, the CPS’ director of legal services, said the application of the law was improving and errors had “significantly reduced” in May.

When asked by The Independent why the CPS did not stop police using the Coronavirus Act, given the 100 per cent rate of unlawful prosecutions, he replied: “We can’t tell people not to charge under the act but we’ve issued legal guidance to the lawyers so they understand the precise circumstances where it can be used. It’s not for the CPS to stop charging offences, it’s to make sure that it’s appropriate.”

Documents seen by The Independent show that dozens of cases under schedule 21 of the act are still going through magistrates’ courts across the country.

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.

It was drawn up at a time when the threat of coronavirus 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.

Three other sets of laws have subsequently been introduced to enforce the coronavirus lockdown, face masks on public transport and a two-week quarantine for people entering England.

Asked by The Independent whether it would abolish the Coronavirus Act in light of the changes and unlawful prosecutions, the Department of Health said it would not.

A spokesperson claimed its provisions “remain a key part of the UK’s response to Covid-19” and that schedule 21 was “essential to controlling and containing the virus in the long term”.

Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister, called for the health secretary to review the powers. She told The Independent that the “draconian” powers were unnecessary, and were doing harm by bringing innocent people into court.

“Firstly we can see from the evidence they’re redundant, secondly they’re being used unlawfully and thirdly they’re being used in a way that’s potentially increasing the spread of coronavirus,” she added. “What is the argument for retaining them?”

Ms Brimelow said the law appeared to have envisaged coronavirus screening and quarantine centres that were never established, and wrongly assumed that significant numbers of infected people would not voluntarily seek treatment.

“The only example we have of someone with coronavirus moving round the country is Dominic Cummings, and this law wasn’t applied to him,” she added.

“The Coronavirus Act has many sections – including enabling remote court hearings. These sections are being used.

“But the ‘potentially infectious persons’ provisions are totally redundant and dangerous as they are being misapplied. They need to be repealed or revised to remove the power to prosecute.”

Two-week quarantine rules for UK arrivals come into force

In early April, police officers across the country were issued with new guidance telling them to use the “exceptional powers for exceptional circumstances only”.

An official document said people should only be arrested under the Coronavirus Act at the request of a health professional, and that separate laws should be used for people breaking the lockdown.

The Health Protection Regulations, which came into force on 27 March and have been updated as restrictions have eased, gave officers the power to fine or arrest people for being outside “without reasonable excuse” or illegal gatherings.

More than 18,400 fines have so far been given out by police in England and Wales, although the rate has dropped steeply as the lockdown is relaxed.

Silkie Carlo, director of the Big Brother Watch civil liberties group, said there was a “big crossover” between the laws.

“Schedule 21 has been used to target and punish vulnerable people – the homeless and mentally ill,” she added. “It contains some of the most extreme powers that parliament has ever passed.

“There is now no evidence base for them remaining in law, but overwhelming evidence to repeal them.

“The fact the government is clinging onto them really encapsulates the risk of rapidly creating sweeping emergency laws with no oversight in times like these.”

Ms Carlo said the Coronavirus Act could have a “profound impact on human rights”, following previous warnings from MPs.

She added: “If these powers were necessary, they would have been lawfully by now, and that hasn’t happened.”

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