MORE than 600 fines were issued by police in Dorset for breaches of Covid-19 laws over Christmas and the start of this year, figures show – more than a third of all fines issued since the start of the pandemic.

They include someone holding a gathering of more than 30 people and those failing to wear face coverings or breaking international travel rules.

But the approach by police across the UK has been called into question by MPs and peers who, in calling for a review, have described the fines as "muddled, discriminatory and unfair".

In a report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said the Coronavirus Act had been misunderstood and wrongly applied by police.

Figures published by the National Police Chiefs' Council reveal a total of 1,622 fixed penalty notices were recorded as being issued by Dorset Police between March 27 last year and April 18 this year.

They include 612 fines after December 20 – 38 per cent of the total handed out by officers since the pandemic began.

The figures also show the number of fines issued over more recent weeks, with 194 given out by officers between March 14 and April 18.

Assistant Chief Constable Sam de Reya said: “The fines issued since 20 December 2020 were in response to blatant breaches of the COVID-19 legislation during the Tier restrictions at Christmas and then following the full National Lockdown in January 2021.

"We have enforced these most recent restrictions as we have throughout the pandemic by using the 4Es of engagement, education, encouragement and only turning to enforcement as a final resort.

“The restrictions were put in place to protect the NHS, stop the spread of the virus and save lives. Unfortunately, some individuals chose not to comply like the vast majority of the public and they were issued with fines.

“Yet again, my thanks to all those in our communities who played their part and followed the rules. Thankfully, all their hard work has paid off and we are moving through the roadmap out of lockdown. As we do this I would like to remind everyone that COVID-19 has not gone away so please to stick to the rules over the coming months.

“In January 2021 the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner carried out a scrutiny process of the fixed penalty notices issued by the Force between 22 April 2020 and 16 January 2021. The aim of this review was to provide further reassurance to the PCC and the public that we are using our powers legally, appropriately and proportionately.

“If any learning is identified as a result of national review, we will of course take this onboard.”

Across England and Wales, police forces have issued 110,322 fixed penalty notices under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations.

However, the JCHR has criticised the system, raising concerns over the validity of the fines, the inadequacy of the review and appeal process and the size of penalties.

The maximum penalty for the breach of a Covid-19 law is £10,000.

Harriet Harman, JCHR chair, said: "The police have had a difficult job in policing the pandemic.

"We hope that their initial approach – to engage, explain and encourage before issuing fixed penalty notices – will continue.

"However, since January there have been greater numbers of FPNs as police move more quickly to enforcement action."

Coronavirus rules have changed at least 65 times since March 2020, providing “obvious challenges for police”, according to a report by the JCHR.

The report said: "It is astonishing that the Coronavirus Act is still being misunderstood and wrongly applied by police to such an extent that every single criminal charge brought under the Act has been brought incorrectly."

Of the fines in Dorset from March 27 last year to April 18 this year there were two for failing to wear a face covering when required, and five for breaching international travel rules.

There were also four for breaking business regulations and one for holding a gathering of more than 30 people.

The remaining fines were for offences not specifically provided by the NPCC at a force level.

The figures cover the end of the tier system, which saw stricter restrictions on hospitality businesses and a banning of travel between areas with different tiers.

It was followed by the third national lockdown from January 6 when people were told to stay at home.

Since then, a lifting of restrictions saw schools reopen in March followed by a rule allowing groups of up to six of two households to meet outside.

In April, measures were further relaxed with the opening of retail, public buildings and holiday lets.

The NPCC said it would be considering the recommendations in the JCHR report.

National Police Chiefs' Council Lead for Operation Talla, Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill said: “Police officers and staff have played an important role in the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We welcome the recognition from the committee, as well as the recent HMICFRS report, that policing has been effective in its use of the 4 E’s approach to engagement, where we will engage, explain, encourage, and only where necessary enforce.

"Successfully encouraging the public to follow the regulations is the most effective way for policing to support prevention of the spread of the virus. This approach has ensured that the vast majority of policing interactions related to coronavirus measures have not resulted in a need to issue an FPN.”

"Policing has quickly adapted to changes in these unprecedented circumstances. When new regulations are issued, we ensure officers have additional guidance on the legislation and we continue to support them to reduce any errors in its application. We do recognise however that we have not got it right in every circumstance.

"We will continue to work closely with our criminal justice partners to identify and rectify any errors and we will consider the report’s recommendations carefully.”