The New COVID Fines Could Destroy Your Life
"A £4,000 fine would be a staggering 16-week salary for someone in the bottom fifth of earnings"
Individuals who break the new coronavirus self-isolation regulations face fines of £1,000. Worse, if an ‘authorised person’ considers you were ‘reckless’ in coming into contact with someone, the fine becomes a crushing £4,000. The rules apply to anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19, or who has come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.
In any year, £1,000 or £4,000 fines are enough to break most UK households financially. But this is a year of rising unemployment, salary cuts and businesses running at half-mast. ONS data show that average disposable income (after tax and benefits) was £30,800 per year before lockdown. For the poorest fifth of Brits, this was just £13,100. Even prior to the current recession – the deepest in modern times – disposable income was falling by more than four per cent each year.
Some will believe these new fines are appropriate to deter people from breaking self-isolation and endangering others. Can’t afford it? Don’t break the rules. I’m sure that YouGov could find a sizeable chunk of people who think the fines don’t go far enough. But there are serious issues here of proportionality and fairness.
The police have never before had the power to issue such large fines to individuals, and there are good reasons for this. Normally, fixed-penalty notices are £100 or £200. For example, driving distracted could land you a £100 on-the-spot fine. The fine can only be higher (increasing to up to £5,000) if it is issued by a court. To keep fines within people’s means, some are linked to salary, typically limited to 50 or 75 per cent of a weekly wage. But a £4,000 fine would be a staggering 16-week salary for someone in the bottom fifth of earnings.
There is simply no equivalent in modern Britain to the self-isolation fines. They have more in common with the ‘Weregild’ and ‘blood money’ of the Dark Ages than any modern-day fixed-penalty notice. ‘Recklessly’ leaving self-isolation and potentially transmitting the virus will cost you about the same as murdering a ‘non-prospering Welshman’ would have in the 9th century. Welcome to neo-feudal justice.
‘These fines have been set in order to put the fear of God into people… £1,000 is enough to ruin most households’ income for a year’, Stephen Jackson, solicitor at Jackson Osborne, tells me. Jackson set up Law or Fiction, a website which helps citizens to understand their legal rights during the lockdown.
‘The real issue’, he says, ‘is that the level of these fines is simply unaffordable for the vast majority. How many people have £4,000 in their bank account ready to pay within 28 days? A court will have to decide whether to imprison them for failure to pay or whether to issue a further notice for payment over a longer period of time. It’s disproportionate.’
So what counts as ‘reckless’ according to the regulations? It appears to be entirely for the ‘authorised person’ to decide. And who is the ‘authorised person’? It could be a police officer, a public-health officer, or it could be anyone designated by the local authority. As Jackson points out in his explanation of the regulations, it could be a traffic warden re-deployed as a Covid marshal.
Does this person with a clipboard care about the balance of harms at play here? He or she will individually wield the power to ruin someone financially. Will the ‘authorised person’ have a target number of fines to issue, as other officials sometimes do? At a time when some local authorities are on the brink of bankruptcy, fixed-penalty notices could be quite an earner.
We can always hope that these ‘authorised persons’ will exercise sensible discretion and compassion. But the behaviour of the authorities has not always been edifying during the pandemic so far. In an environment in which ministers have asked the British public to snitch on their neighbours and police have already fined businesses for the tiniest breaches of the curfew laws, it looks as if there is a desire to flex these punitive muscles.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Act. In the same week, these new self-isolation regulations came into force. Arguably, they could go against Article 5 of the Human Rights Act, which is supposed to protect an individual’s freedom from unreasonable detention. The act does contain an exemption for those capable of spreading an infectious disease. But given the unreliability of Covid-19 tests, and the fact that Covid is not a serious disease for the vast majority of people, this exemption seems pretty unreasonable in this case.
We know that PCR tests are incredibly sensitive, and given Covid’s low prevalence in the population at this stage of the pandemic, a significant number of results could be false positives. As Jackson says, ‘How can people be detained in their homes with no exercise and access to medical services’ on the basis of such a test? ‘These fines have no relation to culpability or harm’, he argues. People are being deprived of their liberty based on a test result that may be wrong, and there is no right to ask for a second test to confirm the result.
We need to be clear about this. It’s not self-isolation if it’s enforced on pain of a £1,000 or £4,000 fine – it is incarceration.