Boris Johnson wanted “bigger fines” for Covid rule-breakers as he unwound the first lockdown in August 2020 – just weeks after his own rule-breaking birthday party inside Downing Street.
The Covid inquiry has heard how the former prime minister pushed for tougher enforcement and harsher penalties as the UK opened up again at the end of the pandemic’s first summer.
Mr Johnson eventually received a fixed-penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police for attending his birthday bash in June 2020, after the Partygate scandal revealed that there had been illegal gatherings at No 10.
On 15 August 2020, Mr Johnson wrote to his private secretary: “I agree with these openings, but the OVERRIDING MESSAGE should be about tougher enforcement and BIGGER FINES.”
The lead counsel to the inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, asked former home secretary Dame Priti Patel to put aside the “crushing irony” of Mr Johnson’s note as he asked her about enforcement measures.
Dame Priti admitted to the inquiry that the confusing and complex nature of the Covid laws had made them difficult to understand for both the police and the public.
The former home secretary also suggested that fines of £10,000 were too high, and conceded that there had been a view within the Home Office that restrictions on outside gatherings were “unenforceable”.
Asked if there was also a view within the Home Office that such rules were “practically unenforceable”, Dame Priti said: “Within the Home Office, yes.”
When she was asked by Mr Keith if she accepted there had been a “high degree of confusion” about the rules – in respect of both following them and enforcing them – the former home secretary said: “I would agree, I would completely agree.”
And when she was asked whether the flat fine of £10,000 for those caught breaking lockdown rules as restrictions were lifted in August 2020 was proportionate, she said “No.” She added that the fine was “very high”.
The senior Conservative told the inquiry on Thursday that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which at the time was under the leadership of Matt Hancock, had been entirely responsible for drawing up the legislation for Covid regulations.
Former police leader Martin Hewitt was scathing of the rules, citing one occasion on which he had had to delay enforcement after receiving notice of the regulations just 16 minutes before they were due to be in place.
Dame Priti said drawing up the regulations had been “solely the domain” of the DHSC, which she criticised for its “inflexibility”. “We were there to actually explain potentially what would work and what wouldn’t work – and there was a lot that didn’t work,” she added.
The senior Tory also criticised the “totally inappropriate” policing of the vigil that followed the murder of Sarah Everard.
Dame Priti said she had felt the need to raise the matter with the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at the time, Cressida Dick, after there were clashes between police officers and those attending the event.
“I saw the news that night and just felt that that was totally inappropriate policing,” Dame Priti said.
The Met was criticised for its heavy handling of the later stages of the vigil, during which some of the women present were bundled to the ground, and for its “tone-deaf” response to the outrage expressed in the aftermath of the incident.
However, Dame Priti – in an apparent dig at her successor, Suella Braverman, over the Palestine rally controversy – said it had been vital to respect the “operational independence” of the police when trying to make sure that the Covid regulations were enforced.
The former home secretary told the Covid inquiry: “Throughout the pandemic, I felt that I spent a great deal of time reminding my colleagues of the [independent] role of policing.”
She said it was vital “that we as politicians are not there to dictate directly to the police as to when to arrest people and enforce the law”.
Meanwhile, messages show that Mr Johnson felt he could not criticise the police following the Sarah Everard vigil because the incidents that took place appeared to him to be simply “argy bargy”.
In messages sent in March 2021, the then PM said: “Feels odd to weigh in as PM and bash the cops when all I have seen is footage of some argy bargy without knowing what happened.”
Two women who were arrested at a vigil for Sarah Everard later secured payouts from the Metropolitan Police for being detained at the event, which was held while Covid restrictions were still in place.