UK to get tough on virus rule-breakers

Interior Minister Priti Patel says she will support police officers clamping down on those flouting lockdown rules

Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel attends a COVID-19 pandemic virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on January 12, 2021. People who flout coronavirus lockdown rules were on Tuesday warned that police will take action, as the government vowed to step up enforcement measures to cut surging infection rates that risk overwhelming health services. Home Secretary Priti Patel said 45,000 on-the-spot fines had already been issued to people who failed to adhere to strict lockdown guidelines. / AFP / POOL / Leon Neal

Britain’s Home Secretary on Tuesday warned that anyone flouting coronavirus lockdown rules would face action from the police.

The government pledged to increase enforcement to cut surging infection rates which risk overwhelming health services.

Priti Patel said police had already issued 45,000 on-the-spot fines to people who failed to follow lockdown rules.

But with concern mounting about infection rates and continued lack of compliance, more action will be taken, Ms Patel said.

“My message today to anyone refusing to do the right thing is simply: if you don’t play your part, our selfless police officers, who are out there risking their lives, will enforce the regulations,” she said. “And I will back them.”

Britain is in its third national lockdown, with schools and non-essential shops closed as a new, more transmissible strain of the virus spreads quickly across the country.

Last week the UK had its worst daily case number and death tolls since the start of the outbreak, prompting calls for tougher measures, including increasing social distancing.

But Ms Patel stopped short of new measures, insisting the existing rules to stay at home were clear.

Unlike several European neighbours, the UK government does not require people to wear masks outside.

Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said officers had recently stopped a boat party and a minibus full of people heading out for a walk.

A £10,000 ($13,625) fine was issued to the organiser of a party who tried to claim it was a business event, Mr Hewitt said.

“At this critical time, we will have more officers out on dedicated patrols to take action against the small few who are letting us all down,” he said.

Another 1,243 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded on Tuesday, taking the overall death toll to 83,203 – the highest in Europe and one of the worst in the world.

A further 45,533 positive cases were recorded in the past 24 hours, pushing the total number infected to 3,164,051.

Supermarket staff in particular have voiced concerns about the risks they face during the outbreak, with shop workers’ union Usdaw urging tougher in-store measures.

Retail bosses have asked for police support to help enforce the rules after complaining of a lack of resources.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson rode into a storm after reports he cycled 11 kilometres from his Downing Street home.

Mr Johnson’s office insisted he was exercising, which is allowed under the rules.

The government is banking on a huge vaccination programme to help lift lockdown restrictions, which are expected to be in place until at least mid-February.

More than 2.4 million people have already received inoculations, including Queen Elizabeth II and TV naturalist David Attenborough, both aged 94.

Mr Johnson on Monday warned of “false confidence, false complacency” because of the vaccine introduction, and called on people to “do the right thing”.

“We need to enforce the rules in supermarkets. When people are getting takeaway drinks in cafes, then they need to avoid spreading the disease there, avoid mingling too much,” he said.

Vin Diwakar, regional medical director for London, on Tuesday called the crisis “the biggest health emergency” facing Britain since the Second World War, and said the pressure on hospitals was real.

In November, there were 1,000 Covid-19 patients being treated at state-run National Health Service hospitals in the British capital.

On Christmas Day, December 25, that jumped to 4,000, and by Tuesday there were about 8,000, more than 1,000 of whom were in critical care.

Hospitals were working to increase capacity but that was putting pressure on other services for conditions such as cancer, Mr Diwakar said.

“We can’t do this indefinitely. There comes a point if the infection goes further out of control, more patients have to be transferred elsewhere.”