Dame Priti Patel told the Covid inquiry that she thought the £10,000 fine for regulation breaches was excessive, but Boris Johnson wanted them even higher, ITV News political correspondent Harry Horton reports
Police had to put off enforcing new coronavirus laws because they only received the legislation signed off by Matt Hancock 16 minutes before it was meant to be enforced, the Covid inquiry has heard.
Martin Hewitt, the former chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said on Thursday he had to tell then-home secretary Dame Priti Patel officers would need more time to act.
Covid inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett criticised some “bad” legislation drawn up during the pandemic in a hearing focusing on the extraordinary powers handed to police.
Mr Hewitt, who co-ordinated the coronavirus response between all of the UK’s forces, also criticised ministers for confusing the situation further during media appearances.
On one night, he said there was regulation intended to come into force at 12.01am but “we received the regulations signed off by the secretary of state for health and social care (Mr Hancock) at 11.45”.
“So we had precisely 16 minutes,” he said, despite briefing documents needing to be drawn up and then translated into Welsh before they could be shared with forces.
“I had a conversation and was very clear with the home secretary at the time (Dame Priti) that we would not be enforcing that regulation on that day and it was going to take us probably… 24/36 hours to actually get to a place where I was confident police officers out there knew what they needed to do.”
More problems would arise at 7am the following morning when ministers were “spinning round” the television and radio studios talking about this, he said.
Mr Hewitt said politicians would on “many occasions” go on to “throw a whole degree of confusion out” by mixing up regulation and laws, so he would have to correct the record.
Dame Priti said drawing up the regulations was “solely the domain” of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which she hit out at for “inflexibility”.
“We were there to actually explain potentially what would work and what wouldn’t work – and there was a lot that didn’t work,” she added.
She said that a “completely different system” would need to be in place in future pandemics to prevent the chaos witnessed during Covid.
Lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC asked if there was “a high degree of confusion” surrounding the meaning of the “complex” and “difficult to understand” laws throughout the pandemic.
He posed whether they “led to both confusion on the part of the public, on how they could regulate their behaviour, and confusion on the part of the police as to how they might be enforced”.
Dame Priti replied: “I would completely agree. I think there would need to be a different system, completely. A totally different system.”
Mr Keith said that she “must have screamed” at the DHSC when they presented new regulations at the “11th hour”, to which she replied: "And we did."
The former home secretary told the inquiry that the £10,000 fines introduced for breaches were “very high”.
A handwritten note from Boris Johnson – who received a fixed-penalty notice as prime minister – was displayed showing that he wanted “bigger fines” emphasised as he unwound the first lockdown.
Dame Priti said she had to raise the policing of the vigil to remember Sarah Everard when there were clashes with protesters with then-Met Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick.
“I saw the news that night and just felt that that was totally inappropriate policing,” she told the inquiry.
Baroness Hallett criticised legislation giving police the powers to direct people to be tested for Covid-19 and enforce medical directions.
“That’s an extraordinary power to enact, and I shouldn’t criticise our elected representatives but I can’t see the purpose,” she said.
“I see an awful lot of uncertainties, reasonable grounds, whether it’s unpractical, having to have a public health officer.
"And there are so many reasons why that’s a bad piece of legislation. Again I shouldn’t criticise but I am going to.
“It’s something we need to get into whether, or when, we have another pandemic, we have on the books ready to go legislation that’s better than this.”
Mr Hewitt said the powers were never used but agreed with the chairwoman.
“How on earth one forms a reasonable ground to suggest that somebody has or may be infected with a virus you can’t see seems to me quite a challenge in a practical sense,” he said.
He also told the inquiry how it was “incredibly difficult for even a perfectly law-abiding and committed citizen” to abide by the at times “rapidly” changing laws.
Then with localised tiering rules coming in, he said different regulations “on opposite sides of the same road” made policing more difficult.
Mr Hewitt said people becoming “fed up with the regulations” sapped “away at the morale of the officers who are just trying to do their job in pretty difficult circumstances”.
Dame Priti also told the inquiry that it is “fair” to say there were no sophisticated or developed plans with regard to the UK’s borders when facing an incoming viral pandemic.
Questioning her, Hugo Keith KC said: “Although there may have been processes in place, and plainly it would be absurd to imagine that there were no processes at all in place for determining how to deal with borders
"In the face of any sort of crisis, there were no sophisticated or developed plans setting out, perhaps by way of a step-by-step process, (a) 'this is what you do to borders in terms of screening or restrictions or quarantine or closure in the event that there is a viral pandemic or epidemic identified offshore in Europe or the rest of the world, and a clear indication that it is coming’.
"You had to effectively sit down and work out step-by-step what you should do."
Dame Priti replied: “I think that’s fair. I do think that’s fair. That’s a process of iteration where we’re constantly asking questions.
"As I said, we are a practical department, so on that basis, constantly asking challenging questions – a lot of bits around technical capability as well as the powers that we may have within the immigration sphere and the borders and powers that we may not have."
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