Lockdown rules are “tough enough” without the need for further crackdowns, Priti Patel has said as she defended Boris Johnson’s weekend cycling trip but warned that “egregious” rule breaches would face action.
It came as the UK recorded its second highest total of daily reported deaths – 1,243 – with the home secretary coming under pressure to explain why current lockdown rules are looser than in March, including on exercise.
Johnson was criticised on Monday for a weekend cycle ride in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London, seven miles from Downing Street. No 10 has refused to clarify if he was driven there.
Patel told a No 10 press briefing, her first since May, that “staying local is absolutely crucial” but the public should be “acting in the right way, staying away from other people, which is clearly what the prime minister did when he was taking his daily exercise”.
She said police would move more quickly to issue fines as part of an enforcement crackdown this week, as the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said there were “a stubborn number of people refusing to abide by the regulations”.
No 10 has decided it will not press ahead imminently with any changes to the current restrictions, despite a number of discussions on Sunday and Monday about expanding mask wearing and removing the right to exercise with one person outside their household. “There were ideas kicked around but for now the priority is enforcement, though of course that is constantly reviewed,” a senior source said.
Patel prompted further confusion about what exactly is allowed in the current lockdown by referring not to exercise but “outdoor recreation”, which is proscribed under government guidelines.
She told the briefing: “The rules are actually very simple and clear. We are meant to stay at home and only leave home for a very, very limited number of reasons and that is obviously to go to work only if you cannot work from home. In terms of schools, schools are open for pupils of key workers and then, of course, outdoor recreation in a very restricted and limited way, staying local.”
The government’s website states: “You cannot leave home for recreational or leisure purposes (such as for a picnic or a social meeting).”
Asked repeatedly why the rules from March were tougher on social contact than the current curbs, Patel said it was “important to reflect quite frankly on the state that we’re in right now”, adding:
“The rules are clear, the rules are firm … the rules are tough enough. The more we follow the rules, the more we can drive this awful disease down.”
She deflected questions on whether the government should clampdown on employers who are not enabling home working. “This isn’t about, you know, picking out individual groups or things of that nature … We have clear guidance for businesses.”
Martin Hewitt, NPCC chair, suggested police could not enforce any rules that would put a particular distance on how far people can travel from their homes for exercise. “There is an exemption that allows you to exercise and I think that’s absolutely right, for people’s physical and mental health,” he said.
He admitted police had not always got it right. “There have on occasions been issues where we’ve made a decision that it turns out that the officer’s decision was not the right decision,” he said, acknowledging the case of two Derbyshire women who were fined £200 for driving five miles for a walk, and who later had the penalties rescinded.
Hewitt said officers were putting themselves at risk to deal with irresponsible behaviour, including a boat party in Hertfordshire with more than 40 people who paid £30 for a ticket, and a minibus full of people from different households travelling from Cheltenham into Wales to go for a walk. He said police had issued a £10,000 fine to the organiser of a party in Surrey who was trying to claim that it was a business event.
Hewitt, who said 45,000 fixed penalty notices had been issued since the start of the pandemic, said there would be a crackdown on those failing to wear masks on public transport and in shops, saying people should “expect a fine” unless they are exempt.