Fines given to people travelling for childcare reasons during the coronavirus lockdown will be looked into by the government after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was caught flat-footed by a vicar.
The Rev Martin Poole, a Church of England vicar, said he challenged Hancock at the Downing Street press briefing after feeling compelled to expose the inequality he believed the Dominic Cummings case revealed.
In a surprise move Hancock said he would ask the Treasury about the penalty notices, which were initially ￡60 and later rose to ￡100, and which were given to people breaching the lockdown rules. It is not known how many fines have been given to families travelling for childcare reasons.
Poole, 61, from Brighton, was selected to ask a question at the daily briefing as a member of the public. He told the Guardian: “This came from a genuine sense of unfairness. I know families who have suffered all sorts of hardships because of this. I’m concerned about inequality and standards for people in public life and the rest of us, and I think one of the roles of the church is sometimes to call these things out when we see it.
“I know a mother, [who] was a nurse, and she and her husband both went down with the virus, and they got on with it until they both recovered. That’s what many, many, people have done.”
Hancock, who had not had previous sight of the question, said he would write to the vicar saying whether the fines could be refunded.
He said during the press conference: “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’ve had all the way through this and so I think especially coming from a man of the cloth that is perfectly reasonable to take away that question. I’ll have to talk to my Treasury colleagues before I can answer it in full. We’ll look at it.”
Shortly after the briefing, government advisers stressed that Hancock had been asked about another government policy area and had not promised an official review but only to look into the issue. The Home Office, rather than the Treasury, will look into the issue.
As of mid-May police in England and Wales have issued more than 14,000 fines for alleged breaches of lockdown laws.
Poole, of St Luke’s church, in the Brighton suburb of Prestonville, said he first submitted his question on Saturday after it emerged the prime minister’s chief adviser, Cummings, had driven from London to Durham to seek childcare for his four-year-old during lockdown amid fears that both he and his wife were becoming ill.
“It’s been galling. Since this came up I’ve been trying to find the official advice on this,” Poole said. “And wider than that, if the government starts saying it’s okay to interpret rules and laws – and the people who have had penalty notices have broken the law – if we are all being told we can use our instincts as to whether we can abide by the law, that’s an increasingly serious thing for the future.”
After Poole’s live question to Hancock, Sky News asked if he felt there had been hypocrisy. He said he thought the government operated by a different set of principles to the rest of society.
A police officer had reported that members of the public were using Cummings’ alleged breach of lockdown rules as a reason to follow suit.
The officer, who said he worked in London and gave his name as Scott, told LBC radio that he found enforcing the law more difficult now. When he asked growing numbers of lockdown flouters why they were refusing to observe the UK restrictions, they told him it was because “lockdown was over” and if Cummings “can do what he wants [then] we should be able to too”, the officer said, adding: “As a police officer, I don’t know what to respond back to them.”
Cummings denies any wrongdoing.
On the last bank holiday Monday the crowds who descended on British beaches were attributed in part to Cummings’ travels and Johnson’s apparent sanctioning of long car journeys.