UPDATE, 17 APRIL 2020: We’ve updated this article 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.
Business Closure Offences
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?
The regulations define two types of business that must close: those that have to cease ‘on premises’ activity, and those which have to cease all operations completely.
Businesses which are required to cease ‘on-premises’ activity include:
- Restaurants, including restaurants and dining rooms in hotels or members’ clubs.
- Cafes, including workplace canteens
- Bars, including bars in hotels or members’ clubs.
Canteens in hospitals, care homes, schools, prisons, and military facilities are exempt from these requirements. So are services which provide sit-down meals and food for the homeless. Restaurants can still run takeaway or delivery service.
Businesses which must close completely include any place where people gather in large groups. The regulations list these businesses:
- Bingo halls
- Concert halls
- Museums and galleries
- Betting shops
- Massage parlours
- Indoor skating rinks
- Indoor fitness studios, gyms, swimming pools or other indoor leisure centres
Note that only the part of the business which requires the premises must stop trading. So, say you own a yoga studio called YogaFirst. Your studio must shut under the Coronavirus Act, but your holding company, Yoga Enterprises Ltd, can continue to provide online classes and workshops to paying members.
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 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.
Authorities now have the power to:
- Detain anyone arriving to the UK for up to 48 hours in order to screen and assess them.
- Require anyone to disclose intrusive details about their medical history, travel history, and more.
The regulations also give constables the power to detain anyone who might be infectious for up to 24 hours. If you are subject to these requirements, you can appeal to your local Magistrates’ Court.
What to Do About 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 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.
‘Lockdown’ Offences (Failure to Stay at Home)
Perhaps the most life-changing statement in the Coronavirus Act is this one:
During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.
This statement is the heart of the mandated ‘lockdown’ currently keeping the vast majority of us confined indoors. This statement is also the cause of much confusion for the police, the public and the courts.
You can see this confusion playing out as stories about people found in breach of this section of the act begin to surface in the news. Some of these stories involve quite obvious breaches—this is not the time to be inviting all your friends round for a barbeque or karaoke house party, for instance.
Others are less clear, such as the case of the woman from York who was fined £660 for ‘loitering’ at a railway station, or the two men summonsed in Cheshire for taking a drive because they were ‘bored’.
A major driver in this confusion is the question of what constitutes a reasonable excuse for leaving your residence. That’s less clear than you might expect it to be.
When Can You Leave Your Home During the Coronavirus Lockdown?
Here’s what the Act says about when people who live in England can leave their homes during the lockdown. If you are out of your house for these reasons, you have a ‘reasonable excuse’.
- Buying basic necessities, such as food and medical supplies for people and animals in your household, or for a vulnerable person
- Exercising, either alone or with other members of your household
- Seeking medical assistance
- Providing regular or emergency assistance to a vulnerable person
- Donating blood
- Traveling to work or a charity/volunteering site if that work cannot be done from home
- Attending the funeral of a member of your household or a close family member
- Attending the funeral of a friend who would otherwise have no family or household members attending
- Fulfilling a legal obligation, such as attending court, satisfying bail, or participating in a legal proceeding
- Accessing public services (childcare, social services, DWP services, victims’ services)
- Continuing child custody arrangements for separated families (parents who share children but do not live together)
- Travelling to your place of worship if you are a religious leader or minister
- Avoiding injury, illness or a risk of harm
- Moving to a new house, if reasonably necessary
It’s quite obvious that there is wide room for interpretation of these excuses. For example, in England there are no restrictions on where, how many times per day, or for how long you can take exercise outside your home. This lack of clarity confuses the public and the police—take the recent incident in which Derbyshire police used drones to attempt to stop people from going to the Peak District to take exercise.
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 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 ‘Lockdown’ 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.
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 laws, breaches of the offence 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.