Lockdown in England ends on Wednesday, but it will not put a stop to the fines that can be issued to those who break coronavirus rules. Since March, at least 20,000 penalties of £100 or more have been handed out – an average of more than 500 a week. And with the new beefed-up three-tier system set to confuse many people, it is likely the number of fines will increase.
While the panoply of rules and threats of fines are designed to quell the spread of the virus and help save lives, some people are unhappy with how they are being implemented. They believe heavy-handed tactics adopted by some police forces and local councils result in fines instead of more reasonable ticking-offs.
Yahiee Ahad’s fine is a case in point. The owner of the Raj Bari Indian restaurant in Sevenoaks, Kent, got a £1,000 fine on November 4 – the last day people could eat out before the introduction of the second lockdown in England.
Harsh: Restaurant owner Yahiee Ahad was issued a fine without a warning
The fine was for having people in his restaurant ten minutes past the ten o’clock deadline when his restaurant should have shut, he says. The police say he was still serving customers just before 10.30pm.
Last month, Yahiee lost his 85-year-old father to the pandemic, so he understands the regulations are in place for a good reason. Also, his daughter is an NHS midwife and two cousins are doctors. But having raised thousands of pounds for the NHS Charities Together since the first lockdown – and with these relatives working on the front line – he believes the fine was a little harsh.
He says: ‘It seemed a bit unfair as we had long finished serving food and drink. All customers had paid their bills, too. But I was having difficulty persuading one table to leave.
‘They had been enjoying a few drinks to mark the last day of freedom before another lockdown and were reluctant to go. The police appeared out of nowhere and I was fined on the spot. No warning. No ticking-off.’
Yahiee will pay the fine but he would rather donate the £1,000 to the NHS. So far, Raj Bari customers have collected more than £500 to help him pay the penalty. But he will pay the fine himself and donate their money to charity.
Once lockdown ends, a new three-tier system will herald further strict social distancing rules. Depending on your address, there will be different rules on how people can (or cannot) mix with other households, what restaurants can open and the specific sports people can play.
Again, any breaching of the rules will result in penalties – from £200 for not wearing a face mask to £10,000 for holding a party. A second offence for failing to wear a face mask will incur a £400 fine – doubling for repeat offences until a penalty limit of £6,400 is reached.
The same penalty system will apply to those caught in social gatherings of six people or more – meeting inside or outside – in England. It will also cover those mixing with other families outside a ‘support bubble’ – which is where a household of one can join another family group.
These rules apply for all ‘tiers’ – one to three – but those aged under 12 are not included in the count. For a wedding, no more than 15 guests can attend while for funerals the maximum allowed is up to 30. The fines are similar to parking tickets in that early payment (within 14 days) means a 50 per cent discount.
But the appeals process is less straightforward than with parking tickets – though it is still worth challenging a penalty if it seems unwarranted. Of the 20,000 fines issued, only half have been paid – due to either successful appeals or people simply ignoring them.
The rules are different in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where there are £60 fines for a first offence, £120 for a second, doubling to a maximum of £960.
After lockdown, the rules for social gatherings inside and outside also varies among the four nations. Visit gov.uk for full details.
Partygoers can be hit with fines starting at £200. But those ‘organising or facilitating an organised gathering’ can face a £10,000 penalty. This maximum fine can also be imposed on those who have ignored a warning to self-isolate despite testing positive for Covid-19.
Anyone prepared to challenge a fine should initially appeal to the issuer – the police or local council. Up to 40 per cent of such appeals are successful.
The Crown Prosecution Service has found that ten per cent of fines are issued incorrectly – often on a technicality, such as full details not being taken down properly.
Time is money: Breaking Covid rules can be costly – but you can appeal against fines
Campaign groups Liberty and Big Brother Watch can advise whether a fine has been correctly issued.
On Friday, Liberty told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We support appropriate action that saves lives, but the Covid laws are being misused. The process is a mess and made worse because there is no official route to appeal a wrongly issued fine.’
Big Brother Watch said: ‘Thousands of people have received unlawful fines or threats of prosecution. It is unfair that you might face prosecution if challenging a fine. Rather than adopt a criminalisation approach to health, we need support to stay safe.’
On Friday, police confirmed Yahiee Ahad had been issued with a £1,000 fixed penalty notice. Chief inspector Jon Kirby, district commander for Sevenoaks, says: ‘While staff in the majority of restaurants and bars in Sevenoaks understand the importance of complying with the guidelines and had closed their premises before or at 10pm, in this case, officers witnessed a venue that had continued trading and a fine was issued.’