Almost 1,000 fines were issued by police in Essex for breaches of Covid-19 laws over Christmas and the start of this year, figures show – almost two-thirds of all fines issued since the start of the pandemic.

But the approach by police 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 1,421 fixed penalty notices were recorded as being issued by Essex Police between March 27 last year and April 18 this year.

They include 916 fines after December 20 – 64 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 153 given out by officers between March 14 and April 18.

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 Essex from March 27 last year to April 18 this year there were 24 for failing to wear a face covering when required, and 14 for breaching international travel rules.

There were also 15 for breaking business regulations and nine for holding a gathering of more than 30 people.

They also included five fines were given for breaching self-isolation regulations.

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

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