Police will fine people leaving Covid tier 4 areas without reason

By Jamie Grierson, Gwyn Topham and Libby Brooks

Police have said they will fine people for travelling in and out of tier 4 areas without a reasonable excuse, but have admitted they have no intention to set up roadblocks or routinely stop vehicles, amid warnings not to persevere with now-trashed Christmas plans.

As forces deal with the fallout of the government’s last minute U-turn on Christmas gatherings, extra officers will be deployed at railway stations to clamp down on non-essential journeys, following crowded scenes at transport hubs in London.

The new tier 4 measures imposed from Sunday in London and the south-east indefinitely prohibit non-essential travel out of the area as well as household mixing, including throughout the festive period.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, appeared to suggest on Sunday that police would be asked to stop families attempting to leave tier 4 areas.

But police chiefs later confirmed this would not happen. On stopping cars, National Police Chiefs’ Council Chair, Martin Hewitt, said: “We will step up visibility to encourage the public to follow the rules. There is no intention to establish road blocks or routinely stop vehicles.”

On travelling in and out of tier 4, Hewitt said police would continue to engage with the public and encourage them to follow the rules, but added: “Where necessary, we will enforce through the use of a fixed penalty notice.”

The new measures marked a sharp U-turn by the UK government, who just days before stood by plans to allow cross-nation, cross-tier travel for household mixing for a period of up to five days.

The last-minute announcement on Saturday prompted a rush to London train stations and by 7pm, there were no tickets available online from several London stations including Paddington, King’s Cross and Euston.

Footage posted on social media showed large crowds at St Pancras station waiting to board trains to Leeds.

Hancock branded the behaviour “totally irresponsible” but opposition figures said the chaotic scenes were of the government’s making.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the scenes at London railway stations were “a direct consequence of the chaotic way the announcement was made”, but urged Londoners to observe the new rules.

“You may be taking that virus with you from London to your mum, dad, elderly relations,” he said. “We now have a vaccine being rolled out, you can see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA union for workers in the transport sector, said: “The Tory government’s mixed messaging has been a problem from the start of this pandemic and has hampered attempts to control the virus.

“Their latest U-turn is possibly the cruellest of the lot as millions have seen their hopes of spending time with their loved ones dashed, very late in the day.”

Hancock said: “I think those scenes were totally irresponsible.

“We have all got a responsibility. We in government of course have a responsibility, but so does every single person.”

Asked if the police could stop families from driving out of Tier 4 areas to visit their relatives, Hancock said: “Of course, it is the police’s responsibility to police the law and the law came into force in the early hours of this morning.”

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “If you are in tier 4, the law means you must stay at home and you cannot stay overnight away from home. Across the rest of the country, you must stay local.

London's St Pancras station packed as travellers flee tier 4 restrictions on Saturday – video

“Follow the guidance and please do not come to a station unless you are permitted to travel.

“Extra BTP [British Transport Police] officers are being deployed to ensure only those who need to take essential journeys can travel safely.”

The Metropolitan police said officers across London “will pay particular attention to those groups who have wilfully ignored the rules”.

Patrols would be prioritised in high footfall areas of the capital as well as those areas of London where the virus was spreading rapidly.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced severe lockdown measures for Scotland on Saturday.

They included a “strict travel ban” preventing travel to or from other parts of the UK, which was put in place last month but was due to be removed over the Christmas period. Some exceptions to the ban are allowed for essential purposes.

Police Scotland has said it will double its presence along the border with England. The force’s chief constable, Iain Livingstone, said “highly visible patrols” on roads will be used to “deter anyone who might be considering breaching the coronavirus travel restrictions”.

The UK government is looking into compensating people who have had to scrap their travel plans after new measures were put in place before Christmas to try to stem the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus, Hancock said.

Trainline, the online ticket-booking service, has said refunds are only offered on services that are cancelled or delayed, and will not be offering refunds despite the new restrictions.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, said: “The refunds should follow exactly as in the first lockdown – customers should expect vouchers or changing tickets to a future time and all admin fees should be waived.”