A police officer – who was “treated differently” to Boris Johnson and other public figures – has avoided the sack for going on a mountain hike 20 miles from his home in breach of Covid restrictions.
PC Mark Lee, 43, was also on sick leave at the time after testing positive for the virus.
He breached Covid rules by travelling to Snowdonia with his partner and her autistic four-year-old son on December 29 last year and was fined £600 at Llandudno Magistrates Court in October after pleading guilty to being away from his home.
A Wales-wide lockdown had been announced on December 19 and rules at the time stated exercise must start and finish at home.
PC Lee, who has served with North Wales Police for 12 years, was found guilty of gross misconduct at police misconduct hearing on Thursday.
Although his conviction was deemed serious enough to justify dismissal, he was handed a written warning.
The tribunal heard how the officer had been “treated differently” to Mr Johnson, who made admissions about attending a Downing Street party during lockdown at Parliament on Wednesday, and famous figures including Rita Ora and Jack Grealish.
It was alleged that PC Lee breached the “standards of professional behaviour relating to discreditable conduct which constitutes gross misconduct”.
But PC Lee denied gross gross misconduct and DC Nick Hawe, his Police Federation representative, said that while he accepted his conviction for his Covid breach it was the “path that’s been taken to reach that point” that was in dispute.
The officer had been spotted by his sergeant at a petrol station while travelling to Cwm Idwal, in Snowdonia.
But Mr Hawe said that PC Lee believed he longer had to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid on December 21 because he’d received a track and trace message four days later.
He claimed the sergeant had encouraged him to take the exercise as it was “good for his mental health”.
And Mr Hawe told the tribunal that the officer had taken further action, including contacting the NHS direct, to confirm he no longer had to self-isolate and he had only undertaken the journey for the benefit of his partner’s child.
He said the officer had made admissions to superiors and should have received a fixed penalty notice but had been “backed into a corner” and prosecuted instead, exacerbating his mental health issues.
Mr Hawe said: “Mark Lee has been treated differently to others, he was subjected to a criminal investigation and summonsed to court.
“There are examples of high-profile individuals who have breached or alleged to have breached coronavirus regulations.
“I mentioned Boris Johnson, who by that point was only alleged to have gone on a very lengthy bike ride, but the situation this week seems to have bypassed that and there are more serious issues.
“Dominic Cummins, his chief advisor, took a drive from London to County Durham allegedly to test his eyesight, Rita Ora the pop star had a party at a restaurant and Jack Grealish the Premier League footballer had a car crash miles away form his home.
“Kay Burley, the Sky presenter, had a birthday party and another Premiership footballer Kyle Walker also had a house party.
He added that PC Lee had paid out £10,300 in fines and legal costs as a result of the court case.
DCI Sion Williams, for the AA, said a Level 4 lockdown was in force in Wales at the time and “stay at home” was one of the instructions due to a new strain Covid, with the aim to protect public health, and the situation described as “incredibly serious”.
He accepted PC Lee had received a track and trace message on Christmas Day telling him he no longer had to self-isolate, although that related to a separate period of isolation for his partner, and this “caused some confusion” in the officer’s mindset.
DCI Williams said the issues surrounding the case were complex, while the issue of Covid was “topical” on a national basis.
“Not more so yesterday,” he said, “when the prime minister himself of all people admitted to having breached the regulations which he actually set himself.”
“But we’re not here today to realign the standards of behaviour expected of our police officers against the standards of politicians, nor are we here to assess public opinion on the matter because opinion is split.
He said harm “may have been caused” by PC Lee’s actions in spreading the virus and it was “unacceptable” for officers who enforce the law to break it.
Chair of the tribunal, chief constable Carl Foulkes, described it as “incredibly unusual case”.
He said he was satisfied the PC Lee’s conduct did fall below the accepted standards of behaviour and it amounted to gross misconduct.
The officer’s actions were so serious, he said, dismissal could be justified.
But Mr Foulkes said he accepted PC Lee was sorry for the incident and recognised the “clear challenges” facing him at the time, and he handed him a sanction of a final written warning.
North Wales Police
- Stats since 1st January 2022
6 Misconduct Hearings
67% held in public