UK government ministers did not understand their own Covid lockdown rules, causing confusion and resentment among the police officers tasked with enforcing them, according to a former police chief.
Officers were criticised in 2020 and 2021 for their hardline interpretation of the regulations, which involved them monitoring people with drones, fining people going for walks with cups of coffee and handing out leaflets asking why people were outside.
Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said on Friday however that recent revelations in the Telegraph have underlined how difficult it was for officers to enforce the lockdowns.
The Telegraph reported on Thursday that a cache of WhatsApp messages show Matt Hancock, the health secretary at the time, telling Simon Case, the Downing Street permanent secretary, that ministers would have to “get heavy with the police” to enforce lockdowns.
Fahy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Lots of people in the police service won’t be surprised at the tone of these remarks. They were faced with an unprecedented situation. This legislation was rushed out: it was confused, with poor definitions in it, there was this constant confusion between what was legislation and what was guidance. Often it seemed ministers themselves didn’t understand the impact of the legislation.”
He said it caused “huge resentment within policing” when “individual instances of officers trying to do their best were highlighted and misunderstood”.
The messages revealed by the Telegraph on Thursday show that in August 2020, senior ministers in the UK government – including the then home secretary, Priti Patel – held a meeting with police chiefs to discuss lockdown enforcement. In the week before that meeting, Hancock messaged Case to say: “I think we are going to have to get heavy with the police.”
Timestamps on the messages also show that the government issued a tier 4 alert, ordering people in south-east England to stay at home over Christmas, while a lockdown party was taking place in Downing Street.
At another point, Hancock jokes with others in government about people having to be quarantined in hotels as they entered the country. Case asks: “Any idea how many people we locked up in hotels yesterday?” to which Hancock replies: “None. But 149 chose to enter the country and are now in Quarantine Hotels due to their own free will!” Case says simply: “Hilarious.”