This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (04.05.20).

Today (Monday 4 May) MPs will consider a motion to approve the legislation that underpins the current ‘lockdown’ in England: The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 and The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020. These regulations are already in force.  

This Insight explains why MPs are only approving them now and what might happen to these regulations as the Government’s response to coronavirus progresses. 

What do the emergency regulations do? 

The regulations have given the police extraordinary powers to enforce a lockdown across England. They have three main effects: 

  • They significantly restrict the free movement of people by making it an offence be outside without a “reasonable excuse” and (with some exceptions) to gather in groups of more than two.  
  • They require all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment businesses to close. 
  • They give police officers powers to take people flouting the lockdown back to their homes.   

The police has adopted a co-operative approach. Those who break the rules are encouraged to return home before they resort to enforcement. The police can issued Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) to those who commit an offence under the regulations. Forces in England issued 8,877 FPNs between 27 March and 27 April 2020. 

Why are MPs considering the regulations now? 

The regulations were made under emergency powers in public health legislation. Regulations made under this public health legislation normally require parliamentary approval before they can be brought into force. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock declared the regulations were needed urgently, and brought into force without prior parliamentary approval. They came into force on Thursday 26 March 2020, after Parliament had risen early for the Easter Recess due to the crisis.  

The regulations cannot remain in force indefinitely without parliamentary approval. Under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, parliamentary approval is required within 28 days (excluding certain times when both Houses of Parliament are not sitting). The regulations will therefore cease to have effect on the 19 May if they aren’t approved before. 

Why is there an amendment regulation? 

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force on 21 April 2020. 

They were also introduced using the Government’s emergency public health powers. They mostly make minor changes to the original regulations that don’t have a significant effect. However, there is one amendment that is more substantial. 

Before they were amended, the regulations created an offence of: “leaving the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.” The amendment regulations changes this. It’s now an offence to “leave or be outside of” the place you are living without reasonable excuse.  

The original wording might have created a curious defence for the new offence. Theoretically, those accused of being outside without a reasonable excuse could have claimed to have left home with a reasonable excuse but got waylaid by something ‘unreasonable’.

The Government says this amendment: “put beyond doubt that a person commits an offence if they remain outside of the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.” However, some legal commentators have criticised the Government for amending the meaning of the offence without fully acknowledging the change. 

What about relaxing the lockdown? 

Last Thursday (30 April) the Prime Minister said the Government would be, “setting out a comprehensive plan,” for relaxing the lockdown once the ‘five key tests’ on the spread of the virus have been met.  

It’s not clear how the Government intends to legislate for future changes to the lockdown rules. It may revoke these regulations and make fresh regulations under public health legislation. It could also further amend the regulations being considered by Parliament today.  

The current regulations require a government review the need for the lockdown every 21 days. The next such review is due to take place on Thursday (7 May). 

Further reading 

Policing the coronavirus lockdownHouse of Commons Library. 

Photo by Richard Horne on Unsplash

About the author: Jennifer Brown is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in policing and crime.