Police in parts of Britain are handing out coronavirus fines 80 times more frequently than others, with people in some of the worst-hit areas receiving the fewest penalties.
Analysis of official figures by The Independent shows significant differences between police forces, with some having issued more than 1,000 fines and others less than 100. The vast majority of penalties have been given out under the health protection regulations, which initially enforced the UK-wide lockdown but later split into numerous versions for different areas and restrictions.
The revelation comes ahead of Boris Johnson addressing the nation today in a bid to explain new simplified – but likely stricter – lockdown measures that will be imposed across different areas of the country. The prime minister will confirm a three-tier system with “medium”, “high” and “very high”, which will require different levels of local restrictions.
The government has also introduced laws meaning people can be fined £100 for not wearing a face mask when required, and £1,000 for ignoring orders to self-isolate. The penalties double for each repeat offence, meaning people can be charged £3,200 for some offences, and £10,000 for illegal parties or large gatherings.
Provisional data shows that by 21 September, 18,912 fines had been given out in England and Wales, and almost half had not been paid. Dyfed-Powys Police, in Wales, have given out the highest number of fines (1,731), followed by the Metropolitan Police (1,088), Devon and Cornwall (1,010) and Sussex (868). The lowest number have been issued by Staffordshire Police (43), followed by Warwickshire (64), Kent (126) and Gwent (132).
When the population of each police force area is taken into account, calculations show that Dyfed-Powys Police has given out fines at a rate 86 times higher than Staffordshire Police. The rate for West Midlands Police is less than half the average across England and Wales, despite the introduction of tighter restrictions amid rising coronavirus transmission.
Police in Greater Manchester, Northumbria, Gwent, South Wales and Durham are also issuing fines at below average rates, even though they have greater powers to enforce under local lockdown measures.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister, called for a review of all fines given out so far. “Your treatment by the police should not be dependent upon your postcode,” she told The Independent. “It is likely that the arbitrary results reflect the leadership given to the particular police force. We’ve seen many examples of police chiefs signalling tough action, which went beyond their powers.”
Police leaders have said there are several factors behind the inconsistency and that figures do not capture the number of people who comply with the law voluntarily, or after being spoken to informally. But experts and campaigners have called for more consistency, and warned of confusion between varying restrictions imposed under multiple laws for different areas.
Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaigns officer at the Liberty human rights group, said: “Disparity in policing during the pandemic was inevitable because this government created sweeping and coercive powers to enforce rules that were communicated chaotically.
“Add to this rapid changes and local lockdowns, and policing across Britain is bound to be uneven. At the heart of this has been the government’s relentless and dangerous determination to use criminal justice as a remedy for a public health crisis.”
Dr Gabriel Scally, a member of the Independent Sage board and president of the Royal Society of Medicine’s epidemiology section, said “clear and consistent messaging” was needed from the government. “It hasn’t helped that there are lots of different rules in different places,” he told The Independent.
“We [Independent Sage] think it causes confusion and we are in favour of a tiered approach … our general view is that the most powerful thing is when people want to do things themselves. People get concerned if it looks like one particular area is not subject to measures when another place with the same level of coronavirus is.”
A National Police Chiefs’ Council report shows that most fines were issued for violating restrictions on movement and gatherings. Only 89 fines had been given out by police for failing to wear a face mask, and by just 11 out of 45 forces in England and Wales.
Parliament’s Joint Committee of Human Rights has raised “significant concerns” about the fines given out, warning that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are being disproportionately penalised and there is no route to appeal without risking prosecution.
A Crown Prosecution Service review has so far uncovered 63 unlawful charges under the health protection regulations, but MPs said fines that do not reach court have fewer safeguards.
“It is unacceptable that many thousands of people are being fined in circumstances where the lockdown regulations contain unclear and ambiguous language, and there is evidence that the police do not fully understand their powers,” said a report released last month. “Members of the public who have been unfairly targeted with an fixed penalty notice have no means of redress, and police will know that their actions are unlikely to be scrutinised.”
The Independent excluded the City of London Police from its analysis because of its low number of residents but high footfall, as well as British Transport Police and the Ministry of Defence Police because a population rate could not be calculated.