9 June 2021

Coronavirus Quarantine and Self-Isolation: What If I Don’t?


Is it true that cheating quarantine rules could end in a prison sentence? John Binns, partner in the Criminal Regulatory practice at BCL Solicitors explores the real risks of breaching the regulations.

A legal quagmire

For a set of rules that affects so many people in such serious ways, the regulations on quarantine on return from international travel and self-isolation, due to a particular risk of passing on coronavirus, are surprisingly difficult to access and understand. A particular issue is the penalties for breaching those regulations, and the potential other impacts on those who don’t comply.

The government itself has played some part in creating potential confusion when Health Secretary Matt Hancock referred to possible sentences of up to 10 years in prison for cheating quarantine rules. His office later clarified that this was meant to refer to the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, which would apply if someone forged a document, such as a negative test, rather than a general breach of the regulations.

Forgery, money laundering, and fraud

In fact, the legal power to create offences under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 is limited to non-custodial financial penalties, so any risks of imprisonment must come from other laws, either by themselves, or in combination with the regulations. In addition to forgery, surprisingly perhaps, these would include money laundering, punishable with up to 14 years’ imprisonment under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, where someone makes or saves money by breaching the regulations (which could also lead to the suspect’s bank accounts being frozen).

A more common scenario may be where a person who should be quarantining or self-isolating tells a lie on a passenger locator form, for instance, or fails to disclose something they have a legal duty to disclose, in order to avoid it. That may well fall foul of the Fraud Act 2006, which creates another offence that is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

‘Assisting or encouraging’

Anyone who assists or encourages any of these offences, meanwhile, for instance, a business that allows an employee back to work, knowing they have lied or forged a document to avoid quarantine, could find themselves at risk of breaching the provisions of the Serious Crime Act 2007. If the ‘reference offence’ is imprisonable, then the ‘assisting or encouraging’ offence would be too. Again, money laundering could also come into play if the person or business who assisted or encouraged the breach had made or saved money as a result.

Detention powers under the Coronavirus Act

Another risk to bear in mind is that there are powers to detain any person classed as ‘potentially infectious’ (which could be because they have recently returned from a particular country) under the Coronavirus Act 2020. Passed by Parliament, understandably, in quite a rush near the beginning of the pandemic, the powers are very draconian, allowing for public health officials to detain adults and children for up to 28 days, or even longer, in some circumstances. There have not so far been any reports of their use, but this may change if there are serious or widespread refusals to comply with the law.

The regulations: self-isolation

What, then, do the actual regulations say? The rules on self-isolation (as distinct from quarantine following international travel) for England are now contained in the snappily titled Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020, which:

(a) Require people to self-isolate, where they are notified of a positive test result for coronavirus, or that they have had close contact with someone with such a result, for up to 10 full days, subject to various exceptions, notably including where the notification comes via the NHS Covid-19 app;

(b) create additional obligations for workers, and those they work for, to enforce self-isolation; and

(c) create powers to force people to self-isolate, and offences for those who breach the rules including officers of companies, as above, which are enforceable by fixed penalty notices or fines of up to £10,000.

Quarantine following international travel

The rules on quarantine following international travel to England are now contained in the (even more snappily titled) Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel and Operator Liability) (England) Regulations 2021, which:

(a) impose various obligations on people entering England, which include, where the person has come from or recently travelled through an amber or red-list country, to self-isolate for up to 10 full days, subject to various exceptions; and

(b) create powers to enter premises and use force to enforce self-isolation, and offences for those who breach the rules as above, with fines of up to £10,000.

A dangerous moment

We are, on any view, at a dangerous moment in terms of the enforcement of these restrictions. Notwithstanding the ‘road map’ of removing restrictions generally, the requirement to self-isolate is likely to be with us for some time, as is the ‘traffic light’ system for international travel. Enforcement of the former has historically not been strict, while the latter seems likely to face some resistance given the recent decision to move Portugal from the green to the amber list, and the fact that most countries are now on either the amber or the red list.

Meanwhile, a delay to the final stage of the ‘road map’, long trailed as ‘not before’ 21 June, looks increasingly likely. Although the rules on quarantine and self-isolation are unlikely to change due to that final stage, there is a rising sense of anger in some quarters about the delay, which may contribute to the general risk of non-compliance. Some businesses, required by separate regulations to remain closed or to have limited capacity, have already signalled an intention to breach them.

Many, in these circumstances, will doubtless be tempted to run the risk of fines for breaching self- isolation rules. But they should be aware that the risks they run may be greater than they think. At a personal level, these may include imprisonment, or frozen bank accounts, where related offences are involved, and the prospect of forced self-isolation under the regulations, or detention for longer terms under Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act.

At a societal level, there must also be a risk that, if the softer approach of non-imprisonable offences is seen to be failing, Parliament may decide that it is time to get tougher. This could bring the UK into line with other jurisdictions (including, notably, the Isle of Man), where breaching coronavirus restrictions is already an imprisonable offence. We have so far avoided such measures in this country, despite the government’s rhetoric on occasions. But one of the lessons of the pandemic is that, where public health is at stake, laws can change very quickly indeed.

John Binns

John Binns

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