As the Prime Minister continues to be investigated for COVID law-breaking, Dimitris Dimitriadis explores the penalties heavily issued to minority ethnic groups

As a group of MPs is set to investigate Boris Johnson over his ‘Partygate’ lockdown transgressions, new data has led campaigners to question whether COVID rules were fairly enforced on Transport for London (TfL) services, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

For the first seven months of 2021, at which point restrictions were eased in England, TfL issued some 2,764 fixed penalty notices (FPNs), according to data obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. 

This was part of its attempt to clamp down on what it described as a “selfish minority” of passengers who did not wear a face covering without good reason. 

Of those FPNs – part of emergency legislation introduced at the start of the pandemic – over a quarter (25.5%) were issued to black people, even though only 13% of people in the capital identify as black. 

The disparity has raised concerns among campaigners. 

“Every new piece of data points to racial profiling in the enforcement of COVID regulations,” said Kevin Blowe, a coordinator for Netpol, a police monitoring group. 

This was echoed by Habib Kadiri, policy and research manager at StopWatch UK – which campaigns for fair policing, who said: “The Government was warned of the folly of trying to police their way out of the pandemic when the COVID-19 lockdown period began.”

He added that FPNs were used as “another means to profile and prosecute individuals” and questioned whether officers “were as willing to patrol the Waterloo and City line as their usual so-called hotspots, such as Seven Sisters station” – a much more diverse part of the city.

A spokesperson for TfL acknowledged that “people have valid concerns about rules being enforced fairly on the network” but said that its “enforcement approach was fair and consistent”. 

They added that the disparity was not the result of “discrimination or lack of training” on the part of enforcement officers. 

Last year, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party group of MPs, said that FPNs are “muddled, discriminatory and unfair”, warning about the size of the penalties and the criminalisation of those who cannot afford to pay them. 

FPNs for face coverings were issued at £200 – or £100 for those paying within two weeks. But many of those who did not pay, or possibly could not afford to do so, faced prosecution and much heftier bills starting from £660 for those convicted of a first offence.

Of the 4,365 FPNs that were issued by TfL between 9 July 2020 and 16 July 2021, almost 30% (1,276) were “not paid and were subsequently prosecuted successfully”, according to an FOI response

Jun Pang, a policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, a campaign group that challenges injustice, said: “Those travelling on TfL services are likely to have been people who could not work from home, including frontline workers who we know are disproportionately likely to be people of colour.”

Pang also criticised the Government for creating expansive powers to enforce COVID rules, which were applied “inconsistently” and in “discriminatory ways”.

The problems identified by the Human Rights Joint Committee were “even more concerning when you take into account statistics that show that young people, those from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, men, and the most socially deprived are much more likely to be issued with FPNs than those from other groups,” according to its report

“This is why it is so important the imminent COVID-19 Public Inquiry examines the way restrictions were policed,” said Blowe, urging that the policing of the pandemic – currently not part of its terms of reference – be added to its remit. 

Meanwhile, dozens of Downing Street staff have been issued with FPNs – including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – for breaches of COVID lockdown laws, after the Met Police initially said it did not typically investigate breaches of Coronavirus regulations “long after they are said to have taken place”.

Its investigations into the dozens of events held in Downing Street during the pandemic is still ongoing.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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