Police warn people less likely to comply with Covid rules after Christmas party scandal
Senior police officers have warned that public compliance with new Covid laws will be affected by the Downing Street Christmas party scandal.
Sources told The Independent that anecdotal reports were coming in over terse exchanges between police and the public in recent days, and that officers fear any move to ban parties would prompt a significant backlash.
One senior police officer, speaking off the record, warned that if any new restrictions come in, the “public would try to comply… but would be rightly p****d off.”
A YouGov poll published on Friday found that 46 per cent of people said they would be unlikely to follow a rule preventing mixing outside their household.
When asked why, a fifth of respondents named the revelations surrounding potential Downing Street parties as the main reason – equating to 10 per cent of the British population.
Early in the pandemic, in April 2020, Sage’s behavioural science subgroup warned the government that restrictions must be imposed “in a safe and credible manner” to ensure public compliance.
“Perceived inconsistencies in messaging and enforcement will erode credibility and support for government policies and guidance, and so it is important that all individuals and organisations implement the guidance appropriately,” said a document on “behavioural principles” for imposing new rules.
The government says it has no current plans to resume restrictions on gatherings, but has not ruled tougher measures out if infections do not fall after implementing “plan B” measures including masks and Covid passes for crowded venues.
It comes after Boris Johnson announced an internal investigation led by cabinet secretary Simon Case would look into reports of a staff gathering held in Downing Street just days before Christmas last year, when London was under Tier 3 restrictions.
The probe was subsequently widened to include another festive celebration and a reported staff leaving do. It has also now emerged that Mr Johnson himself hosted a Christmas quiz last year, but the government has insisted it didn’t break any rules.
Tory MP Steve Baker on Sunday said the PM was in “difficulty,” adding, to Sky News, “Any member of the public is going to rightly demand that politicians not only comply with the rules that they impose on other people seem to comply with their spirit, and it’s pretty obvious now but that hasn’t happened.”
Several members of the public have been prosecuted for attending gatherings on the same date as the 18 December Downing Street party, including three women handed penalties of £1,100 each over parties in London.
An Opinium poll commissioned by the Best for Britain campaign group last week found that 62 per cent of respondents thought the scandal would negatively impact compliance with Covid rules.
Layla Moran, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said the Downing Street Christmas party had transformed from a “political scandal into a serious public health risk at a critical time”.
“If the UK is to successfully face down the threat of the omicron variant, the country must have full trust in the UK government’s ability to safeguard lives,” she added.
“Confidence in the prime minister’s leadership has become an obstacle to the adherence to life saving public health measures.”
Laws mandating the wearing of face masks in some settings were extended on Friday, although pubs and hospitality venues are still exempt, and guidance to work from home comes into force on Monday.
If approved by parliament, NHS Covid passes will be required for entry into nightclubs and settings where large crowds gather from Wednesday.
The measures were first outlined in September, when the government grouped them in a “plan B” if coronavirus worsened during the winter months.
An official document said that vaccinations meant it “should be possible” to handle a resurgence without further lockdowns and social restrictions.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said that by taking the new measures the government hoped to “potentially avoid action later”.
Police leaders do not want officers to have a significant role in new mask-wearing or Covid pass requirements and say the primary responsibility should sit with businesses.
But small business minister Paul Scully admitted on Friday that the plan B rules would be “difficult to enforce”.
“I’m not expecting junior members of staff to put themselves at risk but they need to work with local authorities and indeed the police in the most egregious situations,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Police leaders have said that officers will respond to calls for help from businesses, but that with crime back to pre-pandemic levels and the terror threat level now at “severe”, they cannot take responsibility for enforcing rules on masks and Covid passes.
Neil Mennie, chair of the Kent Police Federation, told The Independent: “People will already be aware that police have to deal with a number of competing and high demands and it’s a question of priorities.
“Although we will always respond to calls for help we don’t have the ability or capacity to start enforcing it to a large extent. We have to trust the public to be sensible, as they were previously.”
Mr Mennie voiced concern that it would be more difficult for laws to be enforced because “there may be some fatigue from the public about having to do this again” after a break from Covid laws since July.
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the government to understand the implications of the announcement on policing, but do not expect a significant role for the service in verifying an individual’s vaccination status. This will be a matter for event organisers, stewards, and site managers.
“Forces will continue to enforce existing coronavirus regulations where it is necessary to do so and are working with affected businesses and authorities to support their implementation. We will continue to respond to incidents where individuals are violent or abusive towards staff or members of the public.”