UK ministers don’t understand their own Covid rules, says ex-police chief Police

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UK government ministers did not understand their own Covid lockdown rules, according to a former police chief, causing confusion and resentment among police officers tasked with enforcing them.

In 2020 and 2021 the authorities were criticized for a harsh interpretation of the rules, which included them monitoring people with drones, fining people going for walks with cups of coffee and handing out leaflets asking people to Why were you outside?

Peter Fahey, former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, said on Friday that recent revelations in the Telegraph underlined how difficult it had been for officers to enforce the lockdown.

The Telegraph reported on Thursday that a cache of WhatsApp messages shows then-health secretary Matt Hancock telling Downing Street permanent secretary Simon Case that ministers would have to “fall heavily with the police” to enforce the lockdown.

Fahey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Many people in the police service will not be surprised by the tone of these comments. They faced an unprecedented situation. The law was quickly thrown out: it was confusing, There was this constant confusion between what was the law and what was the guidance, with poor definitions. It often seemed that ministers themselves did not understand the effect of the law.”

He said it caused “huge outrage within the police” when “individual examples of officers trying to do their best were highlighted and misunderstood”.

Messages revealed by the Telegraph on Thursday show that in August 2020 senior UK government ministers – including the then home secretary, Priti Patel – held a meeting with police chiefs to discuss lockdown enforcement. In the week prior to that meeting, Hancock sent a message to Case saying: “I think we’ll have to go down heavily with the police.”

Timestamps on the messages also show the government issued a Tier 4 alert ordering people to stay at home in south-east England over Christmas, while a lockdown party was taking place in Downing Street.

At another point, Hancock jokes with others in the government that people will be locked up in hotels as soon as they enter the country. Case asks: “Any idea how many people we locked up in hotels yesterday?” To which Hancock replies: “None. But 149 chose to enter the country and are now in quarantine hotels of their own accord!” Case simply says: “Hilarious.”

In a subsequent exchange, Hancock sent then Prime Minister Boris Johnson an article about the couple being fined £10,000 each for failing to quarantine on their return to the UK from Dubai. Johnson replies: “Fantastic.”

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The messages have drawn renewed scrutiny of ministers’ decision-making during the height of the pandemic, as well as the pressure they put on police over how to interpret the rules they set.

Fahey insisted, however, that while the hurried legislation caused confusion among senior officers, chief constables may not have felt they had to respond to ministerial pressure to implement it in a particular way.

He added: “The Chief Constable is very, very aware … of the operational independence of the Chief Constables, and will do the right thing.”

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