Coronavirus offences

March 27, 2020 9:18 am Published by

As part of the emergency response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak in the United Kingdom, Parliament has granted the government drastic new powers to curtail the freedom and liberty of people within the UK. As part of those powers, Parliament has created several new criminal offence convictions of which will result in a criminal conviction and can be punished with a fine by the courts.

The powers have the potential to affect both businesses and individuals through both loss of liberty while some of the powers are in force and financial penalties for failing to comply with the various orders.

Businesses

Offence

Section 23 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 permits the government to require people who are in a food supply chain or who are closely connected with a food supply chain to provide information to the authorities about that food supply chain.

While this may sound like something only the big producers and shops need to worry about it is quite possible that if the situation worsens that these orders could be used to demand information from farmers and other producers of food all the way down the chain through wholesalers and right to the local shop at the end of your street.

Therefore, all businesses involved in the production, distribution or sale of food needs to be aware of their obligations and the penalties for failing to comply.

Penalty

Failing to provide information as required could result in a fine of 1% of a business’s qualifying turnover for the most recent accounting period. It’s important to note that the fine is turnover not profit! Thus, if your business turned over £1,000,000 in its last accounting period then the fine would be £10,000. You should also note that the fine is based on the last accounting period not the current one so any downturn in business caused by COVID-19 is unlikely to be reflected by a reduced fine.

There are serious concerns whether the Act complies with the government’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights as where there is a disagreement between what the government say your turnover it and what you say it is, the government gets to decide! This appears on its fact to be a breach of the Article 6 right to a fair trial and, if any fines are imposed, then we expect to see the lawfulness of that provision challenged in the courts.

Defences

There are no specific defences set out in the Act; however, an order can only be made where certain conditions are made out, for example, whether there is evidence that a food chain is being disrupted or is at risk of being disrupted. The authorities must also show that they have requested the information from your business. If they cannot show that a request has been made, or if you have responded by providing the information, we expect you will have a defence to the allegation.

Individuals

The powers directed at individuals target two groups. First, those who are or may already be infected with COVID-19, where the authorities have the power to remove people to a suitable screening and assessment place. The second group is likely to be larger and concerns those who are not infected but who are found to be disobeying quarantine orders from the government.

Potentially infectious persons

A person is deemed a potentially infectious person if either a) a person is or might be infected with coronavirus and there is a risk that they might infect or contaminate others; or b) they have, within the previous 14 days, visited a placed outside the UK that the Secretary of State has declared to be an infected area.

A public health officer, which is a person designated as such by the Secretary of State, may do one of three things:

  1. Order the person to go to a screening and assessment centre;
  2. Remove the person to a screening and assessment centre themselves; or
  3. Order a police officer to forcibly take the person to a screening and assessment centre.

An immigration officer or police constable may also order a person to attend a centre or forcibly take the person to the centre themselves.

Once at the centre, a public health officer may order you to remain at the centre for a period of up to 48 hours. The public health officer or a police officer may use force to prevent you leaving the centre.

You will commit an offence if your fail to comply with the order to attend the screening and assessment centre or if you are taken to the centre but then abscond from the centre.

Once at the centre, a public health officer may order you to answer questions about your health and provide other relevant information as we as ordering you to provide a biological sample. The requirement to answer questions also includes a requirement that you provide document that may assist the public health officer with their assessment, such as travel documents.

You should note that although there is a 48 hour time limit on the detention of a person at a screening centre, the public health officer may require a police officer to take you to a different centre if he deems it necessary whereupon the 48 hour detention period will begin again.

A police officer may also detain you for up to 24 hours before you are seen by a public health officer. This 24 hour period may be extended by a further 24 hours by a police superintendent where it is necessary to do so.

Once you have been assessed the public health officer may direct that you be kept in isolation for up to 14 days. Once again, this period can be extended by a further 14 days if the public health officer considers it necessary. The public health officer may also impose other restrictions on you in place of isolation, such as ordering you not to travel or not to have contact with other people.

You have the right to appeal against the public health officer’s restriction order to the magistrates’ court. On appeal, the magistrates will have the power to confirm the order or quash it. They do not have the power to substitute their own order in place of the public health officer’s order.

Offences

The main offences are: a) failing to obey an order to attend a screening and assessment centre; b) absconding from a screening and assessment centre; c) failing to obey a restriction imposed by a public health officer; d) provides false or misleading information; and e) obstructs a person who is exercising a power in respect of the Coronavirus Act 2020.

Please note that these offences apply equally to a guardian of a child who fails to obey an order on behalf of the child. Where a child is over 10 years old but under 18 the child may also be convicted of an offence in their own right.

The penalty for all these offences is currently a fine of £1,000; however, for most people it will be the criminal record that accompanies the fine that will be the real issue. It is something that will be disclosed on a standard criminal record check for a year after the sentence is imposed and forever if you go for a job that requires an enhance criminal record check.

How can we help?

If you, or a loved one, have been subjected to restrictions imposed by a public health officer and you want to challenge the order then we will represent you in court seeking an order quashing the public health officer’s order.

If you have been charged with an offence in respect of the Coronavirus Act 2020 then we can provide our expert defence team to represent you in court and help you avoid a potentially damaging criminal record.

We will look at all the facts of the accusation, from whether the conditions that make the public health officer’s orders lawful have been complied with correctly all the way through to whether your actions actually amounted to a criminal act.

Our team of litigators and advocates have many years’ experience analysing complex factual scenarios and applying them to often novel areas of law ensuring we get the best possible results for our clients.

Failure to obey quarantine laws

Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 grants the government powers to ban events or gatherings and to close or impose restrictions on premises, including requiring people to remain within those premises. Offences are committed by people failing to obey those orders and by people or companies organising banned events.

Parliament has given the Secretary of State the power to prohibit the holding of an event or gathering or the Secretary of State may impose requirements or restrictions on such events or gatherings.

Restrictions may also be imposed on the owner of premises, or others concerned in the management of premises, that prohibits or restricts entry into or departure from those premises. This could apply to a publican being banned from allowing customers inside, building site managers being ordered not to admit workers to the site. It could also apply to homeowners or tenants being ordered not to allow people to leave their homes.

A person commits an offence if he or she fails to comply with a prohibition, requirement or restriction imposed by the Secretary of State.

If you run a business as a limited company that commits an offence, then you may also be guilty of an offence alongside the business. That will mean that both you and the company can be fined separately. You will commit an offence if you act deliberately or negligently. You may be negligent if, for example, a restriction order requires you to notify people of the existence and contents of the order but you fail to do to.

Upon conviction you will be subject to an unlimited fine and will receive a criminal record. If you are required to provide a criminal record check it will show up for a year from the date of sentence. If you are required to provide an enhanced criminal record check then it will show up forever.

How can we help?

If you have been charged with an offence in respect of the Coronavirus Act 2020 then we can provide our expert defence team to represent you in court and help you avoid a potentially damaging criminal record.

We will look at all the facts of the accusation, from whether the conditions that make the public health officer’s orders lawful have been complied with correctly all the way through to whether your actions actually amounted to a criminal act.

Our team of litigators and advocates have many years’ experience analysing complex factual scenarios and applying them to often novel areas of law ensuring we get the best possible results for our clients.