Police will not routinely stop holidaymakers leaving the country despite Patel crackdown
The home secretary told MPs that going on holiday was “not a valid reason” to leave home during the current lockdown and that the police presence at ports and airports would be increased.
“Anyone who does not have a valid reason for travel will be directed to return home or they will face a fine,” she added.
But there are fears that people who have already spent substantial sums of money on booked flights and accommodation will refuse to return home, take a £200 fine, and proceed with their holiday.
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said police will not automatically stop travellers choosing to continue their journeys under current coronavirus legislation.
Martin Hewitt explained that police can question people about their reasons for travel in airport terminals or car parks in the way they would in other public spaces.
He said that those who do not have a reasonable excuse for travel under the law can be fined “but the process after that is being worked through”.
“Whether they are then barred from travelling is not a police issue, that’s a borders issue,” Mr Hewitt added.
“In the terminal we can stop and question people, but the point that needs clarification is whether there is something then that prevents travel.”
Addressing the House of Commons on Wednesday, Ms Patel said people would also be required to declare their reason for travel, in a form which will be checked by carriers before departure.
A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent the forms have not yet been issued, and it is unclear how carriers could void the legal agreements made with ticket holders at the time of purchase.
There is no indication of any legal change that would afford police greater powers to prevent people from leaving the country.
The Home Office said officers would also be carrying out more physical checks at addresses to make sure people are self-isolating after returning to the UK from abroad.
But figures released by the NPCC show that a significant number of house calls are not answered, and officers frequently find that the traveller does not live at the listed address.
Police in England and Wales have issued around 330 fines for people failing to isolate under the international travel regulations, despite Border Force referring 22,000 cases.
The NPCC says the Border Force also issues its own fines, and that cases are only passed to police by a triage centre after other contact attempts fail.
If police are unable to get an answer from several visits to a home, the case is referred back to the Border Force triage centre.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the figures show a “weakness in the government’s self-isolation scheme for travellers arriving home from abroad”.
“When nearly one in five of them appeared not to be in, despite the fact that they were supposed to be self-isolating, no further action was taken at all – this is ridiculous,” she added.
The overall number of coronavirus-related fines being given out are nearing record levels, with the highest figure in England and Wales since the start of the first national lockdown.
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Almost 5,000 fines were issued in the first fortnight of the current lockdown and the number is expected to rise further.
Mr Hewitt said there had been a “noticeable increase in enforcement” since December, as the spread of coronavirus worsened and deaths rose rapidly.
“We are doing what we said we would and moving more quickly to enforcement where people are clearly and deliberately breaching the rules,” he added.
“In recent weeks we have seen the largest level of enforcement activity since early April last year.”
Mr Hewitt said he would make “no apologies” for fining people breaking the law and putting others at risk.
“This seriously dangerous stage of the virus and national lockdown have led to more proactive patrols by forces and more fines have been issued as a result,” he told the press briefing.
“We know most people are doing their best to follow the rules, however there is a stubborn minority who are not taking personal responsibility and continue to put people at risk.”
A total of 42,675 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) were issued by forces in England and Wales between 27 March last year and 17 January.
Some 250 £10,000 fines have been handed to organisers of mass gatherings of more than 30 people, including illegal raves, parties and protests.
More than 1,300 face covering fines have been handed out by police in England since 15 June, around 400 for businesses that breached Covid laws
Police leaders are in ongoing discussions with the government about vaccinations, and hope for officers to be offered jabs at the same time as teachers, firefighters and other public servants in frequent contact with people who may have Covid.
Regional forces have done internal prioritisation work to establish the officers most at risk, either for health reasons or because of their roles, who would be given the vaccine before less vulnerable colleagues.