Coronavirus and the New Enforcement Powers

New criminal offences came into force yesterday as the government extended powers available under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984.

It is not unusual for government to pass legislation to deal with significant risks to public health and in fact the first public health act was passed in 1884 after a severe outbreak of cholera that year.

The current legislation is very much a living document in the sense that the government of the day can grant powers to protect the public from the risk of harm, and to control the spread of infections and diseases. Those powers have evolved since the Act’s introduction in 1984 which consolidated legislation dating back to 1936. During the infancy of the Act, the government had very limited powers with a view to controlling people, premise or articles already infected.

By 2008, the Act was considered woefully out of date as it applied only to 5 specific infectious diseases, and took no account of new or emerging infections.  Therefore, in reaction to the first SARS pandemic, the law was amended by the Health and Social Care Act 2008 to provide a wider ranging regime to deal with a public health crisis. The legislation was expanded to include any infection or contamination which presented a significant harm to humans, rather than focus on specific infectious diseases. In addition the existing powers were updated to give local authority powers to apply to the local magistrates’ courts to impose health measures in relation to persons, things, premises and groups. These measures remain in place.

The Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 has now been amended further to include the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 to address the current need of the country.

The Regulations came into force at 1pm on the 26th March 2020 and will be reviewed every 21 days with the first review on the 21st April 2020. Furthermore, the Secretary of State will publish a direction terminating any of the restrictions or requirements set out in the Regulations which the Secretary of State considers no longer necessary to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection in England with the coronavirus.

The Regulations require certain businesses and premises to close, significantly restricts the movement of individuals and (with limited exceptions) gatherings in a public place of more than two people.

The new powers to enforce these restrictions and requirements are far reaching. Powers are granted to police constables, police community support officers and any person designated by the Secretary of State. For the purposes of enforcing the Regulations against businesses, local authorities are also granted powers of enforcement.

The new enforcement powers are:-

  • Businesses can be issued with a prohibition notice.
  • Individuals can be issued with a dispersal notice, can be directed to leave or be removed from a gathering to a place where they live.
  • Where necessary, reasonable force can be used to affect a dispersal notice, a direction to leave or the removal of an individual from a gathering to a place where that individual lives.
  • Adults with custody, charge or parental responsibility of a child are to secure, so far as reasonably practicable, that their child complies with the restrictions on movement.
  • Police powers of arrested are extended to enforce the regulations and to maintain public order and public health.

A criminal offence is committed by anyone who, without reasonable excuse, contravenes a requirement contained within the regulations, fails to comply with a prohibition notice, direction or reasonable instruction or obstructs any person carrying out a function under the regulations.

An offence can equally be committed by a company and if an offence is proved to have been committed by a company with the consent or connivance of a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of that company, then they too can be prosecuted.

The offences are punishable on summary conviction by way of an unlimited fine, or by the issuing of a fixed penalty notice.

Nevertheless, the hope is that this new package of enforcement powers will simply remain in the background and their use not required. The National Police Chiefs’ Council hope that these powers will only be used by police officers if an individual fails to comply after the officer has encouraged voluntary compliance.

Police patrols and engagement are likely to become a regular feature for a while so it is important that we are all aware of these new enforcement powers. To fall foul of them could lead to a criminal conviction.

If you as an individual or your business require advice in relation to the enforcement of the new regulations, please contact the crime and regulatory team.

-Jane Anderson


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