Health minister says Covid-19 laws are like a 'pub quiz'

27 April 2021, 19:52

A health minister has likened being asked about coronavirus rules to having to take part in a "pub quiz".
A health minister has likened being asked about coronavirus rules to having to take part in a "pub quiz". Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

A health minister has likened being asked about coronavirus rules to having to take part in a "pub quiz".

Lord Bethell of Romford, a parliamentary under-secretary for the Department of Health and Social Care, appeared to hesitate when MPs asked him to confirm whether social distancing was a law or government guidance.

During a discussion on whether the rules were easy for the public to understand and follow, he said it was "unambiguous" that social distancing was part of the latest laws - only for the accuracy of this to also be questioned.

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The Commons Justice Committee spoke to government ministers on Tuesday as part of its inquiry into coronavirus laws.

Lord Bethell had earlier told the committee that in the early days of the pandemic "competing layers of guidance did become difficult to understand" and there were benefits in bringing guidelines into law to "avoid duplication" in communications to the public.

While he appeared on camera alongside Lord Wolfson of Tredegar QC, parliamentary under secretary for the Ministry of Justice, committee chairman Bob Neill asked: "Sitting socially distanced as you are, in the same office, are you currently complying with law or guidance?"

Appearing to hesitate as he answered, Lord Bethell said: "We ... are ... well social distancing is in the steps regulations."

To which Mr Neill replied: "So is it the law or is it guidance?"

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Lord Bethell said: "That's a bit of a pub quiz but I think it's in the 'steps regs' which came through in January and therefore it is in law. So it is totally unambiguous."

Mr Neill said: "The only reason is because all of us have to think about that, perfectly understandably, for a few minutes to get there ...

"For the member of the public, they may well have to think about that as well and it raises the issue from a rule of law point of view about law being certain, and the basis upon which an offence of which certain behaviour might be criminalised being certain - that's the serious point behind the pub quiz-sounding question."

Lord Bethell added: "You make a very good point and this was one of the challenges that we faced in February and March is that we inadvertently created layers of guidelines so that even the most diligent person, if they went on the internet, could find contradictory guidelines on the same matter.

"One of the benefits of putting things into law is that duplication and contradiction is stripped out because the system of law ensures that doesn't happen."

Committee member Andy Slaughter then questioned whether social distancing was a law or guidance, responding: "I must admit I thought that, rather than in specific circumstances ..., that social distancing was guideline rather than regulation."

There is no mention of "social distancing" in documents setting out the current lockdown laws published in March, entitled the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps) (England) Regulations 2021.

But the legislation does highlight the need for the "required precautions" and "reasonable measures" to be taken at permitted gatherings, like for work.

Answering questions on why some laws were only published at short notice, sometimes barely an hour before they came into force, Lord Bethell said this was not caused by "either a sloppy attitude or a conspiracy on behalf of the Government", adding: "It is trying to make the most of the situation that we're in.

"We are still in the middle of a pandemic. We are still very much focussed on trying to get rid of the disease that we are fighting at the moment.

"There may well be a time when victory has been declared when we can step back and reflect on this."

Gregor McGill, director of legal service at the Crown Prosecution Service, earlier told MPs the legislation was "complex", adding: "The amount of times it has changed and the speed at which it came in and the frequency with which it has been changed, I have to say, has presented some problems for prosecutors keeping up with those changes."