UPDATE, 24 SEPTEMBER 2020: We’ve updated this article about coronavirus offences to reflect additional guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service on what counts as a “reasonable excuse” for being outside during the crisis. Please see the section titled ‘Additional Guidance about “Reasonable Excuses” for Leaving Home’ below.
The global coronavirus pandemic has led to immense changes in our society. From closed schools and workplaces to queuing to enter the supermarket, these changes have been brought about to protect lives and prevent our health services from being overwhelmed.
New realities mean new legislation. On 25 March 2020, the Coronavirus Act (2020) became law. This act contains numerous provisions touching every aspect of UK society. The police, courts, and the public are all affected, and all are trying to understand how the Coronavirus Act impacts their rights and responsibilities. In this article, I’ll run through some sections of the Act, the new offences they define, and the penalties for those offences.
Before I begin, however, it’s important to note that legislation existing prior to the Coronavirus Act still stands. For example, the prosecution against the Nottinghamshire man who spat at an emergency worker was brought under legislation for assault (in this case the relatively new offence of assaulting an emergency worker), not under the Coronavirus Act. Public order offences, offensive communication offences, and other criminal offences are all still in effect.
Now, let’s look at what’s in the Act.
Coronavirus Offences Related to Business Closures
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Business Closure) (England) Regulations 2020 require many businesses to close in order to protect against the risks to public health presented by the coronavirus. These closures will be in force until a direction to re-open is given by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State must keep the need for these closures under review every 28 days.
Breaches of the closure requirements will be punished by fines against companies, company directors and individuals.
Which Businesses Have to Close?
Following the relaxing of restrictions just a few months ago, the new Coronavirus regulations have once again tightened the rules in certain sectors.
For the hospitality sector, and other restricted services, businesses cannot trade between the hours of 10pm and 5am. This does not include food delivery services or drive-throughs.
It is now mandatory that all businesses follow a table service operation, and no customer can stand at the bar.
For cinemas, theatres and concert halls, performances or shows that start before 10pm are still able to finish, but must have started before 10pm.
These restrictions don’t apply to motorway service stations.
Businesses which must close completely include any place where people gather in large groups. The regulations list these businesses:
- Bingo halls
- Concert halls
- Sexual entertainment venues
- Tattoo parlours
- Massage parlours
- Tanning shops
- Nail bars
- Indoor skating rinks
- Indoor fitness studios, gyms, swimming pools or other indoor leisure centres
What New Powers Do Authorities Have Over Gatherings, Events or Premises?
Under Schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act, authorities have new powers to impose restrictions on or force closure of gatherings, events and premises operated by any business or organisation.
- Prohibit or impose restrictions on any gathering or holding of an event.
- Close premises, restrict entry to premises, or impose restrictions on entry to the premises. Restrictions can include (but are not limited to):
- The number of persons in the premises
- The size of the premises
- Purposes for which a person may enter the premises
- Which facilities in the premises may remain in use
- When the premises may be open
If you are convicted of failing to comply with business closure restrictions and you do not have a reasonable excuse, both your company and its directors (or individuals) can be fined.
What to Do About Coronavirus Offences Relating to Business Closures or Restrictions
It is tricky to define what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ excuse. All businesses and premises are different, so these issues will need to be considered on a case by case basis. If you want to continue trading at your business premises—for instance, to run a takeaway service from your bakery cafe—you should seek legal advice to help you avoid breaching the regulations.
If you receive a fixed penalty under the Coronavirus Act, you should take legal advice before paying it; you might have an appeal against the penalty. If you are to be taken to court, you should seek advice about whether you have a defence.
Food Safety Offences
You’ve seen the panic-buying of pasta and tinned vegetables at your local supermarket. Ensuring continuity of the food supply is one main consideration of the Coronavirus Act.
Section 25 of the act allows an appropriate authority to require information from companies in the food supply chain or from companies connected to companies in the food supply chain. In England the ‘appropriate authority’ can, in theory, mean any authority the government designates as ‘appropriate’, but in practice is likely to mean the Food Standards Agency. This information is intended to help those authorities determine whether the food supply is being, or in danger of being, interrupted.
Failure to provide this information is an offence under the Coronavirus Act. The penalty is a fine of up to one percent of the company’s turnover as declared in its most recent accounting period.
What to Do About Food Safety Fines Under the Coronavirus Act
If your company receives a notice that a fine is being considered, you are entitled to make representations about the amount. You can—and should—do this through a solicitor.
You also have a right of appeal against the fixed penalty. This appeal can be made to the First-Tier Tribunal. Note that there are deadlines for making an appeal, and they are tight deadlines. Your company will need to act swiftly. Our firm can help you make your appeal on time.
Offences Related to Travellers Arriving to the UK
Air and rail travel has been greatly reduced during the coronavirus crisis. Because of the risk to public health posed by travellers, the coronavirus legislation gives authorities new powers when it comes to screening and detention.
Following the most recent updates to the Coronavirus regulations, any traveller who arrives back into the UK must now self-isolate for 14 days if they have returned from a country not listed as a ‘travel corridor’.
What to Do About Coronavirus Offences Relating to International Travel Restrictions
If you give false information, refuse to comply with these regulations, or abscond from detention without permission, that is an offence which is punishable by a fine. It’s also an offence to obstruct anyone else from complying with these regulations. Furthermore, you can be fined if you fail to ensure your children comply.
Each of these coronavirus offences can be defended if you have a ‘reasonable excuse’. What constitutes a ‘reasonable excuse’ will change on a case-by-case basis, so seek legal advice as soon as you can.
Following the most recent updates to Coronavirus restrictions on 22nd September 2020, failure to comply with the regulations put in place will lead to fines and fixed penalty notices.
‘Local lockdown’ restrictions have come into force for a number of areas up and down the country. As part of these updated regulations, people who live in the ‘protected area’ cannot gather with someone from another household in a private dwelling or garden.
This also means that for people who live outside of the protected area, they cannot visit another person’s private home within that location. For residents that live within the protected area, they also not able to visit a private dwelling elsewhere in England.
The areas that are currently in a local lockdown in England are:
- Greater Manchester
- North East of England
- North West of England
- West Midlands
- West Yorkshire
When Can You Leave Your Home During the Coronavirus Lockdown?
Although supermarkets, shops and bars are still allowed to stay open, in some capacity, to the public, with these new restrictions come a new set of exceptions to the rules.
Following the relaxing of restrictions following the original lockdown period, people are now allowed to leave the house for the following activities:
- for work, including voluntary, or charitable services
- for education or training
- to help someone who requires emergency assistance, including to ensure injury, illness and/or harm is avoided
- facilitating a house move
- when caring for a vulnerable person or parental contact with a child
- and to fulfil childcare duties (this includes registered carers, and now following an additional update, grandparents and those with similar arrangements where people are in ‘linked childcare households)
People can be exempt to the new restrictions through the following scenarios:
- at their request, a person outside of another’s household can be present during labour
- attending a close family member’s bedside if you believe they are dying, and if no one else is available
- or if you are fulfilling a legal obligation
New restrictions and rules are being imposed on a regular basis, so it’s best to stay up to date with restrictions via the government website.
Additional Guidance about ‘Reasonable Excuses’ for Leaving Home
Lockdown began on 23 March 2020. During the initial lockdown period, there were many incidences of confusion about ‘reasonable excuses’ for leaving home. Both the public and the police experienced this confusion, with particular confusion around what constitutes ‘essential’ shopping during the coronavirus emergency. On Thursday, 16 April, the Crown Prosecution Service issued some clarification about what is a ‘reasonable excuse’, and the College of Policing helpfully published a summary of that advice on their website. You can read that advice in full here, but a few key points:
- It is perfectly acceptable to continue to buy chocolate, alcohol, and other ‘luxury’ items from the supermarkets if they are available
- You can drive in your car to a park or other area if you wish to exercise there, but you should spend more time exercising than you do driving
- You can stop to rest during exercise or while walking to and from the shop, but you should not take a short walk just to sit in the park for an extended period
- You can buy DIY products to repair or maintain parts of your home, but you cannot buy them to begin a new renovation project
- If you need to move house for several days to allow for a ‘cooling off’ following arguments at your primary residence, you may do so
- You may also attend your garden allotment if you have one
With the lockdown now confirmed to continue for at least another three weeks, there is likely to be additional clarification of what a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home looks like.
10 May ‘Lockdown Easing’ Updates
On Sunday, 10 May, the Prime Minister released an address in which he attempted to lay out a phased plan for easing the lockdown as the pandemic subsides, along with modifications to the current lockdown which will take place from Wednesday, 13 May.
He issued a few clarifications around outdoor exercise and leisure. These were:
- People can in fact leave the house multiple times per day to take exercise if they wish (this was always the case, but now it’s made explicit).
- People can play sports with other members of their household, sunbathe with other members of their household, and picnic with other members of their household.
He also stated that people, particularly those in construction and manufacturing, “should go to work if you can’t work from home,” “avoid public transport” if they do travel to work, and that new guidelines for businesses would be forthcoming.
What Are the Penalties for Coronavirus Offences Against ‘Lockdown’ Regulations?
As of 10 May 2020, breaching the ‘lockdown’ regulations results in a fine of £100 for first-time offences. Offenders can reduce the fine to £50 if they pay within 14 days.
The fine will double with every subsequent offence—£200 for the second, £300 for the third, and so on, up to a maximum of £3,200.
What to Do About Coronavirus Offences
Whether or not you have a reasonable excuse to leave your home is for a court to decide. In order for you to be convicted, the court would have to determine:
- If you did it
- If what you did contravened the regulations
- If it was reasonably necessary for you to contravene the regulations
You can seek legal advice to help you determine whether you have a reasonable excuse if faced with a coronavirus offence.
More Changes, More Disruption, More Confusion Ahead
The Coronavirus Act is just over ten days old as I write this. It was necessary for government to take action in this crisis, and legislation was a necessary part of that action. However, legislate in haste, repent at leisure.
The restrictions on businesses and people and the powers granted to authorities are all vague, subject to interpretation, and incredibly complicated. That is to be expected, given that the nature of this crisis requires curtailment of personal freedoms and rights at the expense of public safety at a level not seen in this country since the Second World War.
And the consequences of the Coronavirus Act have the potential to become even more complicated as the act is reviewed and expanded, or as different sections come into force.
For example, Schedule 21 of the act is not yet in force. This section outlines new powers of detention of ‘potentially infectious persons’. These powers are delegated to ‘public health officers’. A ‘public health officer’ can include anyone designated as such by the government, and they can exercise these powers ‘in the interests of that person, the protection of others, or the maintenance of public health’—an extremely broad remit.
As with other areas of the coronavirus offence laws, breaches are punishable with a fine—unless the person charged with a breach has a ‘reasonable excuse’. Which, again, is subject to broad interpretation.
One outcome is very likely: as the emergency period continues, many people may find they are faced with a legal proceeding arising from the Coronavirus Act. It’s important to take legal advice from a solicitor who is as well-informed about these new laws as possible. If you or your business faces a fine or penalty for a Coronavirus Act-related offence, get in touch. We can help.