More than 28,000 people in England and Wales have been convicted of breaches of Covid-19 regulations, despite the government’s insistence that it never intended to criminalise people for minor infractions during the pandemic.
The convictions are for Covid-related offences, such as attendance at gatherings during lockdowns or arriving at airports without the proper evidence of a coronavirus test. Almost 16,000 of the convictions – or 55% – involved people under 30.
The figures, which were obtained by the Guardian through analysis of data from the Ministry of Justice, are considerably higher than any previous estimate.
They reveal how tens of thousands of mostly young people have been severely penalised for relatively minor infractions of Covid rules that have left them with damaging fines and, in many cases, criminal records.
Two years after restrictions were lifted, magistrates are continuing to work their way through a backlog of cases, with about 100 Covid-related cases being heard each month.
The average fine issued in magistrates courts last year was £6,000, although some people have been fined as much as £10,000.
The figures will add impetus to growing calls on the government to halt the criminal prosecutions. Penelope Gibbs, the director of the campaign group Transform Justice, said: “It is ridiculous that the courts are still prosecuting people for Covid offences. All outstanding Covid prosecutions should be cancelled immediately.”
The government said it intended to treat most breaches of Covid regulations as civil infractions, introducing fines to deter behaviour that could spread the virus, rather than criminalising people.
The then minister for policing, Kit Malthouse, told the justice committee in 2021 that the on-the-spot fines for Covid breaches were a “psychological game” and “relatively light-touch”. Lord Bethell, then a minister at the health department, said the government was “clamping down on … but not criminalising behaviour”.
Those statements appear at odds with the 28,000 convictions, which are understood to largely stem from people who initially received fixed-penalty notices. If a fine is contested – or left unpaid – it can result in magistrate judges ruling on the case without the defendant being present, under special fast-track measures.
Misunderstood or missed paperwork has led to people being found guilty and sentenced without their knowledge. Some say they had no idea they had been convicted in absentia until the bailiffs arrived.
There were nearly 125,000 fixed-penalty notices issued in England and Wales during the pandemic, ranging from £50, such as that received by Boris Johnson for attending a party with 30 people while he was the prime minister, to fines of £10,000 given out to others for similar offences. Those that were paid went no further.
But tens of thousands of contested or unpaid civil fines have culminated in fast-track prosecutions. They include an 18-year-old student who attended a party during a lockdown, a 35-year-old man who hosted family members on New Year’s Eve and a 72-year-old woman who travelled back from Kenya without evidence of a negative Covid test.
“It’s a farce,” said Gareth Bloodworth, 33, who was convicted after police found him eating a takeaway burger in his car at a local beauty spot when lockdown measures were being enforced.
Bloodworth, a construction worker, was issued a fixed-penalty notice for £1,000, which he contested, hoping to explain his case at a hearing. He said he did not receive any paperwork asking him to provide a plea. A court then sentenced him in absentia, doubling the fine to £2,000. Two years after the incident, he was finally able to persuade the court to drop the conviction, but the ordeal caused months of stress.
“Financially, Covid had hit everyone and this sentence was hanging over me, the family, the mortgage, everything,” Bloodworth said.
Expedited Covid prosecutions rely on the single justice procedure (SJP), a process designed to fast-track prosecutions that would otherwise clog up magistrates courts.
The procedure begins when a letter is sent to a defendant, informing them about the prosecution and asking them to submit a plea. If they plead not guilty the case is treated as any other, with the defendant given an opportunity to contest their innocence in open court. However, if they plead guilty, or no plea is entered, potentially because of missed paperwork, the case is decided by a single magistrate without the defendant present.
Allawy Mintefij, 47, a shop owner from Bradford, regularly travels to Turkey for his clothing business. During one such trip in mid-2021, Turkey was added to England’s red list, meaning when he returned he could fly back only to certain airports. Confused, Mintefij boarded his previously booked return flight and arrived at Manchester – an airport not on the designated list – immediately breaking the new rules.
Nearly two years later, Mintefij discovered that he had been fined and that his failure to pay had meant his case had gone before a magistrate under the SJP. Mintefij says he did not receive information about the fine or the letter explaining that he was being prosecuted and requesting a plea.