Lockdown rules in England have been changed at least 64 times by the government since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a human rights barrister has calculated, amid growing calls for clearer guidance for the public.
Adam Wagner, of Doughty Street Chambers, said that new national regulations, local regulations, regulations on face coverings or rules on travel quarantine have passed into law on average every four-and-a-half days since the first restrictions were introduced in the spring.
As a result, the rules have become increasingly cumbersome, with police, lawyers and ministers unable to distinguish between laws and advice. The guidance given to the public often does not reflect the law, Wagner said.
Many rules, including those demanding that people have a reasonable excuse before travelling, are effectively unenforceable, he said.
The government has come under increasing pressure to define the rules this week after Derbyshire police attempted to fine two women £200 each for going for a walk five miles from their home because their journey was not in the spirit of the new rules. Priti Patel, the home secretary, initially backed the force, but the fine was rescinded after a public outcry.
Two days later, Boris Johnson was spotted cycling seven miles from Downing Street in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, raising questions as to whether he had followed guidance that “you should not travel outside your local area” while exercising.
Wagner, who has been analysing the laws for nine months, said that every time ministers release a new set of rules, there is an element of theatre before the legislation is found to be difficult to enforce.
“There was the inadvertent banning of sex between people not in the same household, which led to the creation of linked households, or support bubbles.
“There was the issue of whether scotch eggs were a substantial meal. There has been endless confusion over exercise, which I think has been totally avoidable,” he said.
The coronavirus legislation itself has grown from being a pdf of just 12 pages in the spring, to 72 pages in the autumn, to 108 pages and 50,000 words after the introduction of tier 4 restrictions, Wagner said.
Police officers cannot be expected to read and digest each new law at speed, he said, and are forced to make snap decisions, resulting in incidents such as the arrest of the two women in Derbyshire.
“The problem is that the police rely upon the same media reports we see. They are not going to read all of this legislation,” he said.
“But they are out and about and make decisions on the fly. They have to make decisions while on patrol. No wonder mistakes are made.”
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At a Downing Street press conference, Patel defended the government when asked about confusion over the rules.
“When we have people dying, when we have people tragically succumbing to this virus, we will have to exercise our judgments as to how to act,” she said.
Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “This is unprecedented territory … the police service has stepped up really well to deal with that.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Throughout this unprecedented pandemic, we have continued to quickly adapt our response based on the latest scientific advice, to protect lives, livelihoods and our NHS.
“All government legislation and accompanying guidance is published online and we are committed to ensuring the guidance is clear and accessible to all.”