Another ‘fine’ response from the government


Following Priti Patel’s announcement six days ago regarding the government and police forces increasing fines, Twitter exploded, stoked with
satirical comments.

The Home Secretary’s statement that fines were increasing to £800 for parties of 15 and more led to the pugnacious Piers Morgan, the government’s chief antagonist, tweeting “Does this mean house parties for 14 people are fine.” Jokes aside, the issue of fines and punitive measures for those breaching Covid-19 regulations have led to polarising debates amongst the home office, police officers and the public surrounding their effectiveness.

As of 8th January, more than 30,000 fines have been issued for Covid-19 breaches.

As of 8th of January, more than 30,000 fines have been issued for Covid-19 breaches. Whilst nationally crime has dissipated, police forces remain diligent and primed to dispense punishment to rule-breakers. Yet the sharp rise in fines handed out in the November lockdown forebodes that fines will become
an ineffective deterrent to the sorely missed house party during the increased disquiet over Covid-19 in this third lockdown.

U-Turns, a third lockdown, and a sense that nothing has got better in a year has meant a loss of community spirit prevalent in Lockdown no. 1. The old adages of “it will be over by Christmas” and “our country needs you” have been lost as we struggle to find the light at the end of a tunnel on a cold, January day in Durham.
Trust in government is at an all-time low; yet trust is the government’s most effective policing measure. Professor Anne John, chair of the TAC behavioural insights group and who sits on the UK government scientific pandemic influenza group admitted that “there’s not a
lot of evidence that enforcement works”.

So why are fines ineffective? For one, we simply do not like being told what to do. Enforced compliance results in antagonism. Government’s best
strategy to increase compliance lies in their power of persuasion. Wielding that power would result in getting people to do the right thing, because they wanted to.

Yet, a pathway to rebuilding the public’s confidence in their actions is the first step in effectively deterring gatherings. Fines also only target a range of behaviours. Whilst observable protest to Covid-19 like a teenage house party can be enforced, a refusal to wash hands cannot. Individual disobedience cannot be policed or prevented by fines.

The steep increase of fines from £200 to £800 also raises fears. Harsher strategies can backfire. If deemed unfair and unreasonable this will result in lower levels of compliance. When tax is increased, for instance, the overall amount paid is decreased. Patel cannot keep adding money to each fine before they lose their significance. The fines are in close danger of becoming another empty threat from the government.

Alternatives to punitive measures are by no means less effective. Hancock’s contentious policy of giving a one-off £500 payment to force people to self-isolate could be the government’s realisation that supportive measures are the answer. This policy directly solves the problem of people not isolating due to finances. These measures nip the breaking of rules in the bud rather than merely catching up with rule-breakers.

Therefore, carefulness and consideration surrounding punitive measures is much needed. The Home Office must think twice before using police enforcement as their main strategy to combat Covid-19. For the majority, enforced measures will decrease trust in the government, which is the last thing the country needs.

Government energies are better spent in educating the public about why compliance is necessary, therefore persuading us to think twice about attending that desperately longed for house party.

Image: Policy Exchange via Creative Commons

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