Powers to issue directions relating to events, gatherings and premises
There is no way to summarise the impact of the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as it is affecting every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s that class you used to attend, those tickets you had or possibly, as the weather improves, that camping trip you had planned – Schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (‘the Act’) provides the authority to stop them. Section 52 of the Act notes that Schedule 22 confers powers to issue directions in relation to events, gathering and premises.
When can the powers be used?
The Secretary of State has the power, from the Act, to make a declaration of the existence of a threat to public health due to Coronavirus. With this declaration comes various very extensive powers. When the public health response period comes to an end, so do the powers of the Schedule. The main trigger for the declaration is that the incidence or transmission of coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health. Given the devastating and continually increasing death toll from the virus at this time, it would be hard to argue that this threat does not currently exist.
The Secretary of State must also be of the view that the powers in the schedule will be effective of means to prevent and protect against or otherwise control the incidence or transmission of Coronavirus. Alternatively, it must facilitate the more appropriate deployment of medical or emergency personnel and resources. It is only for these reasons that the powers in Schedule 22 can be used. Therefore, before making any direction as detailed below, it should be questioned whether the prohibition, requirement or restriction will have the result of furthering one of these purposes.
What are the powers?
The Secretary of State can prohibit or impose requirements or restrictions in relation to the holding of an event or gathering. This could be a specific event, for example the Secretary of State could name a football match was to go ahead that went against the governments social distancing policy. Alternatively, the Secretary of State can say all sporting events must not happen. The direction can be imposed on the owner or occupier of the premises, the organiser of the event or gathering and any other person involved in holding the event (beyond simply attending). The responsibility is on these people to ensure potential attendees are updated. Therefore, it is important to note if you are organising a gathering – get the message out.
The Secretary of State can also impose prohibitions, requirements or restrictions in relation to the entry into, departure from, or location of persons in premises in England. Premises are described as any place and includes vehicles, trains, vessels, aircrafts, tents, movable structures and offshore installations. Premises is clearly defined very widely. Those directions can apply to the owner or occupier of the premises to which the direction relates. It can also apply to any other person involved in managing entry into, or departure from, such premises or the location of persons in them. The restrictions can be to close premises, restrict entry, or secure restrictions in relation to the location of persons in the premises. The restrictions can relate to the number of people, size of the premises, purpose of the premises, facilities there or the period of time.
Where these directions are made the people directed, should be able to be informed. If you are specifically named you must be written to, otherwise it is sufficient for the information to be published. There should also be notice when the directions are revoked.
What are the offences?
It is an offence to fail without reasonable excuse to comply with the prohibition, requirement or restriction imposed. This is a summary offence - a low level offence and a fine can be imposed. It also applies to body corporates.
The Secretary of State can designate who is to enforce and prosecute for an offence. It appears there is currently no guidance in respect of this. However, no doubt the police will be taking a role in preventing events and gathering.
Whilst these powers are enshrined in the Coronavirus Act 2020, the government has been clear that other than key workers, people must stay at home (barring specified allowances). Should these need to be enforced, Schedule 22 can be pointed to as authority to impose such restrictions described by the Prime Minister as ‘draconian.’ There is no time limit or maximum period for these powers. So, for now, events and gatherings are to be an intimate affair with your household or the two-metre passing of people enjoying their daily permitted outdoor exercise.
Emma Bergin, Trainee Solicitor
Posted on Monday, 6th April 2020