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The University of Law comments on how UK lockdown laws have transformed our way of life

With new legislation and restrictions being passed every day in the UK, the ongoing health crisis has completely transformed the way we live.

Lockdown laws that have been brought into place have restricted everything from travel to public gatherings and even how we shop. We must stay at least two metres away from anyone outside of our immediate household, and although new laws launched this week (1st June) allow up to six people to meet up in a garden or outdoor space, we still cannot enter the homes of our family and friends. Non-essential premises remain closed, while those who can continue working from home are urged to do so, paving the way for a new way of working in the UK.

With this in mind, Matthew Tomlinson, Dean at The University of Law (ULaw) Leeds, offers his insight on the new lockdown laws brought in by Boris Johnson and his government for those living in the UK, and how these have and will impact our lives moving forward.

“Covid-19 has presented a threat to human life on a scale never seen before, forcing governments across the globe to take drastic measures of state intervention to mitigate its impact. In March, the UK government passed the Coronavirus Act 2020 and Health Protection Regulations 2020; legislation that empowers the police to direct any potentially infected person to go home, to a medical facility or to a testing location, and makes it illegal to fail to comply with the instructions of police officers without reasonable excuse.

“The new Covid laws go to the very heart of our fundamental human rights, yet perhaps somewhat lost in a myriad of public messaging, few seem to have fully digested the profound impact this legislation, passed almost overnight, has on our civil liberties.

“Freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, rights to family life, rights to refuse consent to medical treatment - these are the personal liberties that we hold most dear and when we look back in history, are freedoms that were hard fought for.

“It is not unusual for Parliament to rush through legislation - anti-terror laws enacted after 9/11 and legislation to allow a general election last December are prime examples of this. However, the problem with rushed policy is that the detail has often not been fully thought through and the Covid legislation has been no exception. Whilst the Act empowered the police to intervene with our civil liberties, it left it to police to use their own judgement as to suspicion, necessity, and proportionality when exercising these powers. Consequently, the courts have already had to look at what constitutes reasonable suspicion in the case of O’Hara, and the National Police Chief’s Council has had to issue guidance following overly zealous and inconsistent enforcement measures being deployed by different police forces.”

But what happens if the public does not comply with the new laws? Matthew states: “Where a member of the public fails to comply with the Covid laws, a police officer can issue a Fixed Penalty Notice, which the majority of people are likely to pay without challenge for fear of being fined higher amounts, or assuming they have broken the law even if they haven’t! It is of paramount concern that the scope left for interpretation of the law by the police and the inconsistency of its application will lead to individuals being punished, without just cause. It is all too easy once powers are conferred in an emergency situation for use in one context to be adapted for use in other contexts. Questions must be asked as to the limit and scope of these temporary powers.

“The Covid Act will expire after two years, but it may be reviewed, extended or changed by Parliament. However, what will happen to the new rules when the crisis is ‘behind’ – or ‘largely behind us’?” Matthew concludes: “The government has pledged to repeal the new rules as soon as it is safe to do so, but there is always the potential for the government to find other reasons for wanting to hang on to the additional powers it now has. Whilst there can be no doubt that they needed to pass legislation to manage the crisis, the parameters of the Covid laws need to be checked and challenged.”