UK to get tough on virus rule-breakers

Phil HAZLEWOOD, James PHEBY
·3-min read
More than 81,000 people have died and over three million tested positive for Covid

Britain's interior minister on Tuesday warned that anyone flouting coronavirus lockdown rules would face action from the police, as the government vowed to step up enforcement measures to cut surging infection rates that risk overwhelming health services.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said police had already issued 45,000 on-the-spot fines to people who failed to adhere to strict lockdown guidelines.

But with mounting concern about spiralling infection rates and continued lack of compliance, more action will be taken, she said.

"My message today to anyone refusing to do the right thing is simply: if you don't play your part, our selfless police officers, who are out there risking their lives, will enforce the regulations," she told a news conference.

"And I will back them."

Britain is currently in its third national lockdown, with schools and non-essential shops closed, as a new, more transmissible strain of the virus spreads rapidly across the country.

Last week saw the country's worst daily case numbers and death tolls since the start of the outbreak, prompting calls for even tougher rules, including increasing social distancing.

But Patel stopped short of announcing new measures, insisting the existing stay-at-home rules were clear.

Unlike several of its European neighbours, the UK government does not require people to wear masks outside.

- Supermarkets seek help from police -

Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs' Council, said officers across the country had recently stopped a boat party and a minibus full of people heading out for a walk.

A £10,000 ($13,625, 11,100-euro) fine was issued to the organiser of a party who tried to claim it was a business event, he added.

"At this critical time, we will have more officers out on dedicated patrols to take action against the small few who are letting us all down," he added.

Another 1,243 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded on Tuesday, taking the overall death toll to 83,203 -- the highest in Europe and one of the worst in the world.

A further 45,533 positive cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, pushing the total number infected to 3,164,051.

Supermarket staff in particular have voiced concerns about the risks they face during the outbreak, with shop workers' union Usdaw urging tougher in-store measures.

Retail bosses have suggested that they receive police support to help enforce the rules after complaining of a lack of resources to do so.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson rode into a storm after reports he cycled seven miles (11 kilometres) from his Downing Street residence. His office insisted he was exercising, which is allowed under the rules.

- 'False complacency' -

The government is banking on a huge vaccination programme to help lift lockdown restrictions, which are expected to be in place until at least mid-February.

More than 2.4 million people have already received jabs, including Queen Elizabeth II, and the television naturalist David Attenborough, both aged 94.

Johnson on Monday warned of "false confidence, false complacency" because of the vaccine roll-out, and called on people to "do the right thing".

"We need to enforce the rules in supermarkets. When people are getting takeaway drinks in cafes, then they need to avoid spreading the disease there, avoid mingling too much," he said.

Vin Diwakar, regional medical director for London, on Tuesday called the crisis "the biggest health emergency" facing Britain since World War II -- and the pressure on hospitals was real.

In November, there were 1,000 Covid patients being treated at state-run National Health Service hospitals in the British capital.

On Christmas Day, December 25, that had jumped to 4,000, and by Tuesday there were just under 8,000, more than 1,000 of whom were in critical care.

Hospitals were working to increase capacity but that was putting pressure on other services for conditions such as cancer, he added.

"We can't do this indefinitely. There comes a point if the infection goes further out of control, more patients have to be transferred elsewhere," he added.

jwp-phz/am/jj