Rules tough enough, insists Patel as she backs PM’s ride
Lockdown rules were “tough enough”, Priti Patel said as she defended Boris Johnson’s weekend cycling trip but added that “egregious” rule breaches would face action.
The home secretary made her comments as the UK recorded its second highest total of daily reported deaths – 1,243 – with Patel coming under pressure to explain why lockdown rules are looser than in March, including those on going out for exercise.
Johnson was criticised on Monday for a weekend cycle ride to the Olympic Park in east London, seven miles from Downing Street. No 10 has refused to say whether he was driven there.
Yesterday the home secretary told a Downing Street press briefing, her first since May, that “staying local is absolutely crucial”. but added that the public should be “acting in the right way, staying away from other people, which is clearly what the prime minister did when he was taking his daily exercise”.
She said police would move more quickly to issue fines as part of an enforcement crackdown this week, as the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said there were “a stubborn number of people refusing to abide by the regulations”.
No 10 has decided it will not press on imminently with any changes to the current restrictions, despite a number of discussions on Sunday and Monday about expanding mask wearing and removing the right to exercise with one person outside their household. “There were ideas kicked around but for now the priority is enforcement, though of course that is constantly reviewed,” a senior source said.
One focus for ministers and officials has been enforcement in supermarkets, which have ramped up efforts in recent days to police mask wearing and social distancing. On Tuesday Tesco, Asda and Waitrose joined Morrisons and Sainsburys saying they would strictly enforce masks in store and limit customer numbers. Patel prompted further confusion about what exactly is allowed in the current lockdown by referring not to exercise but “outdoor recreation”, which is proscribed under government guidelines.
She told the briefing: “The rules are actually very simple and clear. We are meant to stay at home and only leave home for a very, very limited number of reasons and that is obviously to go to work only if you cannot work from home ... then, of course, outdoor recreation in a very restricted and limited way, staying local.”
The government’s website states: “You cannot leave home for recreational or leisure purposes (such as for a picnic or a social meeting).”
Asked why the rules from March were tougher on social contact than the current curbs, Patel said it was “important to reflect quite frankly on the state that we’re in right now”, adding: “The rules are clear, the rules are firm … the rules are tough enough.”
She deflected questions on whether the government should clamp down on employers who were not enabling home working. “This isn’t about, you know, picking out individual groups or things of that nature,” she said. “We have clear guidance for businesses.”
Martin Hewitt, the NPCC chair, suggested police could not enforce any rules that would put a particular distance on how far people can travel from their homes for exercise.
“There is an exemption that allows you to exercise and I think that’s absolutely right, for people’s physical and mental health,” he said.
He admitted police had not always got it right. “There have on occasions been issues where … the officer’s decision was not the right decision,” he said, acknowledging the case of two Derbyshire women who were fined £200 for driving 5 miles for a walk, and who later had the penalties rescinded.
Hewitt said officers were putting themselves at risk to deal with irresponsible behaviour, including a minibus full of people from different households travelling from Cheltenham to Wales to go for a walk.
Hewitt said there would be a crackdown on those failing to wear masks on public transport and in shops, saying people should “expect a fine” unless they were exempt.
Earlier yesterday both the policing minister, Kit Malthouse, and Boris Johnson’s spokeswoman suggested it should be common sense to know what “staying local” meant.