Coronavirus laws: £800 fines and more police data sharing powers come into force

Fines of £800 for people caught at house parties and fresh powers to share data with police on those who should be self-isolating have become law in England.

The latest coronavirus regulations came into force at 5pm on Friday as part of tougher measures to crack down on illegal gatherings and those flouting the legal requirement to self-isolate during the pandemic.

The house party penalty will apply to groups of more than 15 people and will double after each offence, up to a maximum of £6,400 for repeat offenders.

This supersedes existing fines of £200.

But the £10,000 penalties for unlawful groups of more than 30 people will still only apply to the organiser.

According to the legislation, called the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers and Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, the £800 fine is cut to £400 if paid within 14 days.

As well as those in private dwellings, the rule also applies to similar gatherings in “educational accommodation”, the documents setting out the new law said.

Police are given extra powers to access Test and Trace data under the new law.

It comes after data published by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) on Thursday showed just 332 fines had been issued by forces in England and three in Wales, to people failing to self-isolate after arriving from a country on the Government quarantine list between September 28 and January 17.

The latest laws, signed off by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, amend self-isolation regulations “to correct a number of errors” in previous versions of the legislation and “update the information which may be shared for the purposes of carrying out functions under the regulations, or preventing danger to the health of the public from the spread of coronavirus, and to allow certain information to be shared only where necessary for specified law enforcement purposes”.

Contact details, including a phone number and email address where available, can be shared if someone tests positive for coronavirus or if a person has come into close contact with a positive case, the laws state.

Last year, it emerged people in England who had been told to self-isolate through NHS Test and Trace could have their details shared with police on a case-by-case basis after the Government updated its guidance.

But police would not have access to data from the NHS Covid-19 app, which is anonymous so the Government does not know who has been sent instructions to self-isolate.

Test and Trace is now also able to share data with police to confirm whether someone is legally required to self-isolate, if officers receive reports they are flouting the rules.

The Government said the regulations have been updated to allow police to be told whether someone has tested positive, or is a close contact of someone who has, as well as when and how they were told to self-isolate.

This gives police the evidence they need to investigate if the law is being broken, a Government spokesman said, adding that the move is permitted under human rights and data protection laws.

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who studies coronavirus rules and tries to simplify them for the public, said the changes will make it “easier for police to enforce people breaking self-isolation rules” but that it would raise questions over whether the data was being held securely, and whether this could make people “less willing to share information”.

Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, said: “Quietly adding this to the statute books without even announcing it, let alone allowing Parliament to scrutinise the changes, will further erode trust and undermines democratic accountability.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it had received “assurances that there is no automatic mass sharing of data from NHS Test and Trace to police forces” and that limited amounts of information could be shared under “strict controls”.

But the ICO would intervene if people had concerns about data protection law breaches, a spokeswoman added.

The Department of Health and Social Care said: “It is important the police are able to investigate breaches and they will continue to work with Test and Trace to take enforcement action against individuals who flout their legal duty to self-isolate, to protect the public and save lives.”