COVID-19 10-Year Prison Sentence Entirely Disproportionate or a Rationale Reaction?

15th February 2021 Business Crime

The New System and Punishment under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981

On 09 February 2021, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced in the House of Commons a new system and punishment to tackle COVID-19. He revealed that hotel quarantine will be set up for UK and Irish residents who have been to one of the 33 red list countries in the last 10 days.

The result of this is that any returning residents from these countries will have to quarantine in an allocated hotel room from the time of they arrive in the UK. Before travelling, residents will be required to book and pay for a ‘quarantine package’ costing £1,750 per person. Putting this into perspective, 2 people would be subject to a £3,500 charge, whilst a family of 4 would be subject to an invoice of £7,000.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Matt Hancock stated that “We will be backing this new system with strong enforcement of both home quarantine and hotel quarantine. People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk”. He also confirmed that there will be “a £1,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take a mandatory test, a £2,000 penalty to any international arrival who fails to take the second mandatory test as well as automatically extending their quarantine period to 14 days, and a £5,000 fixed penalty notice rising to £10,000 for arrivals who fail to quarantine in a designated hotel”.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock also announced that “anyone who lies on the Passenger Locator Form and tries to conceal that they have been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival here will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years”.

Legal Commentary

Great contention has resulted from the Health Secretary’s approach to false information being provided on the ‘Passenger Locator Form’ and support has been limited. The Travel Secretary Grant Shapps has labelled the 10-year sentence as ‘appropriate’, expressing that the public expect ‘pretty strong action’.

However, the extreme measures have been subject to criticism by many including Former Supreme Court Judge, Lord Sumption and Sir Charles Walker, Vice Chair of the backbench Conservative 1922 Committee.

In his interview with the BBC, Lord Sumption accused Matt Hancock of ‘losing his connection with reality’ and stated that "Ten years is the maximum sentence for threats to kill, non-fatal poisoning or indecent assault"… "Does Mr Hancock really think that non-disclosure of a visit to Portugal is worse than the large number of violent firearms offences or sexual offences involving minors, for which the maximum is seven years?"

During his interview with Sky News on 10 February 2021, Sir Charles Walker professed his opposition to the prospect of a 10 year sentence for ‘rule-breakers’: “Are we really going to lock people up for 10 years for being dishonest about the fact that they’ve been to Portugal?

By all means give them a fine, give them a hefty fine, a few thousand pounds. Are you really seriously suggesting, secretary of state, that we’ve got enough prison capacity to start locking up 19-year-old silly kids for 10 years?”

Our Views

Notably, 10-years is the maximum sentence available and maximum sentences are not often used. Lord Sumption has expressed that the reality is nobody would receive such a sentence as the Court’s will simply not impose it. Critic Chris Falconer told The Guardian: “The far more likely scenario is a Judge sentencing you to prison for a month or so. It will be nothing like 10 years.” Ex-Attorney General Dominic Grieve has also stated that imposing 10 years as the maximum sentence is ‘entirely disproportionate’.

There is of course always the potential that the maximum sentence may be imposed, and when the crime is weighed against the potential maximum punishment, it does not seem fair or just. Putting this into perspective, the maximum sentence for theft, which is a criminal offence, is 6 years however the potential for imposing a 10-year maximum sentence in order to police breaches of COVID rules would be equal to that of serious offences such as sexual assault.

Based upon this, and despite Grant Shapps arguing that the public will have expected this ‘strong action’, we struggle to see how a potential 10-year sentence for those avoiding quarantine rules would be in the public interest. Further to this, we do not believe that the 10-year sentence will act as a form of deterrent as intended as the Court will not uphold a sentence of this magnitude. It therefore becomes counter-productive in this regard.

We believe that a more reasonable maximum sentence, for instance 2 years, would have perhaps been more effective as a deterrent and additionally, more likely to be respected and used by the Courts.

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Peter Grogan is a Partner and Head of Department located in Manchester in our Business Crime, Regulation & Driving Offences department

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