Data gathered through freedom of information requests suggest that zero arrests have been made under coronavirus laws at airports in England in the two months since the home secretary said police would start enforcing the prohibition.
Hundreds of thousands of people have flown in and out of the country since the announcement, including half a million passengers at Heathrow Airport in February alone.
On 27 January, the home secretary said going on holiday was “not a valid reason” to leave home during England’s coronavirus lockdown and added: “Anyone who does not have a valid reason for travel will be directed to return home or they will face a fine.”
The Home Office claimed that police could arrest people who remained intent on going on holiday after being stopped at an airport, saying: “Holiday travel is not allowed and police can fine anyone trying to do so, direct them to go home and, if necessary, use powers of arrest.”
Under the current lockdown law for England, holidays are not explicitly banned but the government said they did not count as a “reasonable excuse” to leave home, and were therefore illegal.
New coronavirus laws coming into force on Monday create a formal prohibition on “leaving England to travel to a destination outside the United Kingdom”, or being present at an “embarkation point” such as an airport or ferry terminal, without a “reasonable excuse”.
There are exceptions, such as travel for work, study, legal obligations, moving home or major life events like attending weddings or funerals.
Anyone breaking the law can be fined £5,000 and it also creates an obligation to fill in a form declaring reasons for travel. Anyone who fails to disclose the required information could be fined £200.
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said that the number of officers at ports and airports would be increased.
“Police will not automatically stop travellers, though officers will continue to question people about the reasons for their travel in the airport terminals or the car park or the other points of entry and exit,” he told a press conference on Friday.
“With the new legislation in relation to travel coming into force on Monday, if officers do discover anyone who is breaching the rules, then we will issue a fine where necessary.
Asked by The Independent whether holidaymakers who decide to continue their journeys after being fined would be arrested, Mr Hewitt said they would not unless they committed a separate crime.
“We’re not simply going to arrest people because they are trying to leave the country,” he added.
No police force that responded to The Independent’s freedom of information request had recorded any arrests under coronavirus laws at an airport since 27 January.
It means potential holidaymakers have not been detained at Heathrow, Luton, Birmingham, Newcastle and other major international airports.
A NPCC police source told The Independent that the 27 January announcement had been “sprung on us” before sufficient law and guidance was in place, and that there was little appetite among senior officers for dedicated airport patrols at the time.
He said police wanted to focus on lockdown breaches that posed the highest health risk, such as large parties, rather than individuals or families leaving the country.
The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, has drawn attention to the amount of extra demand created by policing coronavirus laws on top of officers’ normal duties.
Brian Booth, chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said: “Government ministers are thinking there’s an infinite pot of police available to go and do their whim, when we already have more demand than we can cope with”.
Ken Marsh, chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, added: “It felt like government were asking us to do more than we could, there was a lot of pressure laid down by the government – enforce, enforce, enforce.”
In addition to arrest figures, The Independent also asked how many times officers had engaged with the public about their reasons for travel at airports.
But police forces said they could not provide the figures either because they were not recorded, or it would cost too much to track them down.
They also refused to give the number of coronavirus fines issued at each airport, saying the data was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because it would be published at a future date.
Responses have not yet been received from the forces that cover London Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted airports.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are in a global health pandemic – nobody should be travelling without a valid reason for doing so, and our measures have meant that fewer people are unnecessarily going on holiday, protecting the vaccine rollout.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies