Government could review fines issued to parents who travelled for childcare

26 May 2020, 18:06

Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave Tuesday's press briefing
Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave Tuesday's press briefing. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The Government could review penalty fines issued to parents who travelled for childcare during lockdown, the Health Secretary has said.

Matt Hancock was asked whether a review could take place by a member of the public during Tuesday’s government press briefing in a nod to the ongoing Dominic Cummings scandal.

Mr Cummings - an unelected civil servant - took the unprecedented step of holding a press conference yesterday afternoon to answer allegations he had broken coronavirus lockdown rules to travel 260-miles from London to Durham to self-isolate with his family when he and his wife fell ill.

The reason for this, he claimed, was because they were worried they would not be able to fully care for their young son if they were both ill, and wanted to be closer to family who had offered support.

One Conservative minister has already resigned over the scandal, with more than 40 calling for Mr Cummings to go.

During the press briefing, Reverend Martin Poole, from Brighton, asked: "Will the Government review all penalty fines imposed on families travelling for childcare purposes during lockdown?"

Mr Hancock responded: "It's a very good question and we do understand the impact and the need for making sure that children get adequate childcare, that is one of the significant concerns that we have had all the way through this.

“So I think especially coming from a man of the cloth, I think it is perfectly reasonable to take away that question.

“I’ll have to talk to my Treasury colleagues before I can answer it in full, and we’ll look at it, and if we can get your details, we’ll make sure that we write to you with a full answer and make an announcement from this podium.

“I think we can make that commitment.”

But Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for north-west England, said an "inordinate amount of time has been spent enforcing the restrictions" and reviewing penalties would come at a high cost to police time and resources.

He said: "There is no process by which a review could take place, there would have to be a retrospective change in the law which would enable these penalty fines to be reviewed."

Appearing on Sky News after the press conference, Rev Poole said: “I think everything about this weekend, and the kind of storm that’s going around this, is about unfairness.

“I think people feel a very strong sense that it’s not right that certain people can behave in a way that the rest of us are not allowed.

“I’m very interested, as a vicar, in unfairness – I think there are all sorts of different inequalities in our society at the moment and this is just one of them that needs to be sorted out.

"I think particularly for any families who have travelled, probably worried that they were doing the wrong thing, and were stopped and charged a penalty notice – that should definitely be, as far as I’m concerned, refunded.

“I don’t think any of us realised that there was an element of discretion in these rules.

“It seemed to me very clear that it was about staying at home and many millions of us have done that.”

Rev Poole said that after seeing Mr Cummings’ statement on Monday, he felt “more understanding than he had done before,” but there are “still many questions that need to be answered.”

Mr Cummings came under further fire after admitting to driving 30-miles to Barnard Castle and briefing stopping on a river bank - despite the rest of the country being told to "Stay Home".

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Mr Cummings said he had driven to the local beauty spot with his wife and young child in the car to "test his eyesight" before returning to London.

But the Health Secretary reiterated his support for the adviser when questioned how the two couples were different, despite both having had coronavirus while looking after young children.

Mr Hancock said unlike himself. the aide did not have childcare available.

He added: "The relevant difference is that we had childcare readily available at home and Mr Cummings didn't."

Mr Hancock did not give Robert Peston, the ITV journalist who asked the question, the option of a follow-up on his response.

He also told the briefing he believes that Mr Cummings acted within the guidelines set out by the Government.

He said: "My view is that what he did was within the guidelines.

"I can understand why reasonable people can take a different view, but my judgment, which is the same as the Prime Minister's judgment, is that what Mr Cummings did was within the guidelines.

"After all, the guidelines allow for exceptional circumstances, particularly with regards to childcare and we've stated before that if you're unable to look after a small child, that is an exceptional circumstance."

Mr Hancock added that he understood the "anger that some people feel" over Mr Cummings’ actions but said his focus was on the next steps in tackling the crisis.

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