Covid tsar backs amnesty for people convicted of pandemic rule-breaking

Sir John Bell
Sir John Bell says most people behaved 'incredibly well' during the pandemic - La Roche

The Government’s former Covid testing tsar has backed calls for an amnesty for pandemic rule-breakers.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Sir John Bell, the leading scientist who worked under Boris Johnson, revealed that he had opposed fines for breaking the rules.

And he said it was not right that people had a criminal conviction “simply because they met six people instead of four”.

He said he supported calls to wipe the slate clean for the people, who number about 29,000, so far convicted in the courts for breaching Covid rules.

“I think it would be a real shame if people ended up perhaps totally accidentally with a criminal record because of the Covid rules,” he said.

Sir John, the regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, was responding to the calls by charities and former Cabinet ministers, including Sir Robert Buckland, the justice secretary during the pandemic, to wipe the slate clean for offences such as attending gatherings, leaving home during lockdowns, and failing to wear face coverings.

Unlike politicians such as Rishi Sunak who were handed fixed penalty notices, thousands of people received criminal convictions after being found guilty by courts because they contested the fines or failed to pay them.

Criminal record could hit job prospects

This could hamper their job prospects as police can pass on the details to potential employers if they are deemed “relevant” for criminal background checks for sensitive jobs such as teaching, social work and policing.

Covid convictions would also have to be revealed when applying for visas to visit countries such as the United States and Canada. Both countries reserve the right to permanently ban anyone who fails to reveal a conviction.

Sir John, who was also a member of the expert advisory group to the Government’s vaccine task force, said he disagreed with the prevailing view in Whitehall during the pandemic that lockdowns and other measures needed to carry the threat of criminal prosecution.

“There was a view in Whitehall that mandatory enforcement was quite an important thing to do. There was a view that none of this stuff was going to work unless it was an offence if you broke the rules. I am not sure that over time there was a lot of evidence that was the case,” he said.

“Most people behaved incredibly well. I am not sure a fine was actually going to make that much difference. That was my view at the time and is still my view.

“What I wasn’t aware of was that so many people ended up with a criminal offence because they didn’t respond to a [fixed penalty notice] letter, or maybe even tore up the letter.”

He cited as an example the requirement to report test results. “They didn’t report the tests because they didn’t need to. If people were tested positive, they didn’t go to the pub.

‘Maybe decisions were not good ones’

“They just said: ‘I don’t want to give my friends Covid.’ I would argue that 99 per cent of people behaved pretty well,” he said.

“It is quite important that people understand it was a crazy time and that we don’t want it to have a long tail to affect people for a long time because people were making decisions quickly and maybe the decisions were not that good ones. Why someone has to live with that seems beyond me.”

Three former Cabinet ministers – Sir Robert, Sir David Davis and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg – and Lord Sumption, the former supreme court judge, have been joined by charities in calling for an amnesty for those with Covid convictions.

“I think it’s a reasonable argument that Robert Buckland’s come up with which is, let’s just wipe the slate clean from the point of view of a record. It was never intended to give you a criminal record,” said Sir David.

“Truth be told when somebody writes the history of this, they’re going to view this whole policy as bonkers because you’ve got people going on business trips to a country and coming back to the wrong airport because the country’s been reclassified while they’ve been away.

“People being done for exercising and a policeman says you’re not exercising, you’re not sweating. And that literally happened.

“Scenes like this, it was a barking mad period of time, really, but the truth is, what can we do? We can stop people having their lives ruined, and we should do that.”