Home Secretary Priti Patel has given police new powers to tackle the mass gathering problem besetting England during lockdown.
From this week, £800 fines can be given to anyone found attending a house party of more than 15 people.
This will double for repeat offenders up to a maximum of £6,400.
Patel made the call to ramp up fines due to “a small minority who refuse to do the right thing”; claiming that bigger penalties would help the government “crack down on the most serious cases of rule-breaking.”
A lot of this ‘rule-breaking’ the Home Sec was referring to has happened very close to home.
Greater Manchester has a poor record for COVID breaches.
Data from the National Police Chief’s Council showed that 2,183 fines were handed out in the region between March 27 and December 20 – ranking Greater Manchester the second-worst area in England.
The only region that received more fines in this same period was Northumbria – with 3,034 FPNs.
And the fines have kept coming.
Since August, local police have served over 2,800 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) in total – with around half of those for house parties.
So, does this mean that GMP has been tougher than other forces in England? Or is Greater Manchester simply more badly behaved than its neighbours?
First and foremost, it’s worth noting that the NPCC data covers the whole range of COVID legislation breaches – from mass gatherings and meeting others to operating business when required to close.
Rules have varied between different areas in England – changing more than 64 times in the process.
Since the first lockdown ended, there have only been 27 days when Greater Manchester has not been under some form of restriction – beginning with an indoor ban on July 31.
GMP’s Assistant Chief Constable Nick Bailey believes that this is one of “a number of factors” that play into Greater Manchester’s bad COVID breach record.
“Greater Manchester has been in some form of lockdown or restriction pretty much longer than anywhere I think other than Leicester,” he stated.
“So more offences have occurred over a longer period of time.”
The ACC also stated officers have moved beyond simply warning residents now – given how everyone is aware of the rules.
“Our staff have had longer to engage with the public and make sure they’re informed about the rules, and yes we’ve probably reached a stage where we are at enforcement with more people sooner than lots of other parts of the country,” he explained.
“Whilst we were having to enforce breaches over August and early September, many other forces weren’t under that level of restriction, so they weren’t dealing with COVID breaches.
“We’ve done a lot of communication with our population, so it’s hard for them to say they don’t understand the rules.”
All parts of England are currently under the same blanket restrictions as part of a nationwide lockdown. But recent breaches in Greater Manchester have remained high.
Local police issued over 100 FPNs after shutting down multiple New Year’s Eve gatherings. But, perhaps more surprisingly, 190 FPNs were also distributed in the middle of January (a traditionally quieter period).
87 of these fines were for house parties alone.
According to officers, this represented 16% increase in the same period during December.
Most COVID breaches are reported via the police’s online system, but the force has urged people to use 999 if there’s “real disorder”.
An increasing number people are being found in attendance at party properties – with an average of 15 or more.
ACC Bailey admitted that some people “haven’t got it in their heads” that mass gatherings are dangerous.
“This variant – which is in Greater Manchester now – is far more infectious,” he stated.
“COVID is still killing people in our communities.
“If you go to a party, there is a chance that you are aiding the spread. If that happens, quite frankly, people die.”
The new hefty £800 fines come into force this week, but ACC Bailey has said the size of these penalties isn’t going to deter officers from handing them out.
“The fine itself doesn’t change how we enforce,” he said.
“In our view: A breach is a breach. We will not be introducing any leeway just because the penalty has changed.”
“If the only way people can learn a lesson is to receive a fine of quite a significant amount, then that is what we will do.”