14:18, May 14 220 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-14 14:18:04
What are your new rights during England's lockdown?

Off to play tennis or purchase fresh dahlias? Changes to emergency health protection regulations have significantly altered the laws restricting our ability to leave home and travel during the coronavirus crisis.

Although more permissive than the first versions, the new laws have become increasingly complex as lockdown begins to ease and devolved governments devise their own legislation.

The initial emergency powers were contained in the Coronavirus Act and the 2020 Health Protection Regulations.

What are you new rights under lockdown?

Under the government’s amended health regulations in England, the list of “reasonable excuses” for leaving home has been extended. It now includes taking exercise with your household or “one member of another household”.

Public open spaces can be visited in similar company to promote “physical or mental health or emotional wellbeing”. Trips to estate agents and to view properties are now permissible, as are visits to waste or recycling centres, garden centres and outdoor sports courts.

Those categories are in addition to the already allowed activities of obtaining food and medical supplies, seeking medical assistance and providing care to a vulnerable person.

It is also permitted to attend a funeral of a close family member, “move house where reasonably necessary” and keep up any existing arrangements for access between separated parents and children. Travel for the purposes of work where it cannot be carried out from home is also legal, as is the provision of voluntary services.

Have there been disagreements over these rights?

As the pandemic crisis continues there have been an efforts to make government guidance – as articulated by ministers and public health officials – align more closely with the underlying law.

There is nothing in the English regulations about social distancing. Revised police advice issued by the College of Policing and National Police Chiefs’ Council makes that clear: “Officers should only enforce the Health Protection Regulations – government guidance is not enforceable, for example two-metre distancing, avoiding public transport or the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces.”

The amended Welsh regulations do, however, specify that social distancing of two metres must be observed between people from different households.

Because they are new, there has been concern that courts, police and prosecutors do not understand the emergency laws. The Crown Prosecution Service is examining all charges in relation to Covid-19 to ensure there have been no miscarriages of justice.

What punishments can be imposed?

Fines for failure to comply have risen significantly. Fixed penalty notices, which were previously £60, are now £100 (£50 if paid within 14 days). For subsequent penalty notices, fines can rise to as high as £3,200. Those who do not pay can be taken to court.

Anyone who feels they have been fined inappropriately can contest it. Courtroom challenges are likely to see police interpretations of the law questioned.

Is there public consent for these powers?

The amended regulations, made under the executive’s powers to create statutory instruments, have not yet been scrutinised by MPs or peers. The initial version of the regulations were only debated by parliament the day before they were replaced by the current laws.

Clare Collier, of the civil rights organisation Liberty, said: “It’s concerning that now [these powers] have finally received parliamentary oversight, the government elects to replace these powers. It’s a blatant evasion of parliamentary process.

“Instead of narrowing those sweeping powers, the government is ramping up fines for falling foul of the lockdown … This pandemic is a public health crisis – not a criminal justice issue.”

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