Stuart Coster is the Editor of LibDemWatch and previously co-founder of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum.

Reports have been rolling in over recent days of Liberal Democrat activists breaching coronavirus rules to make dangerously opportunistic leaflet deliveries during lockdown.

With a far keener eye on elections that are still said to be planned for May than, seemingly, public safety, Lib Dems have wasted no time in kicking off their New Year campaigns – despite much of the country being in Tier 4 and lockdown.

While supporters of other parties observe government guidance to stay at home unless for essential activity, Lib Dem activists have been spotted shamelessly putting their political leaflets through doors from Norwich to Eastleigh and Basingstoke to Derby.

Yet in every case, where the party has been challenged by the local media, even advised by the police that there are “no exceptions” to the restrictions for campaign leaflets, the clear chorus in defence has been that Lib Dem HQ has advised them that it’s fine to continue.

In Norwich, for example, local Lib Dem councillor, David Britcher, admitted to the Eastern Daily Press that deliveries of his party’s ‘Focus’ newsletter had continued for around 10 days while the area was under Tier 4 “Stay at Home” restrictions, though halted once the latest national lockdown was announced.

Norfolk moved into Tier 4 on Boxing Day, but Cllr Britcher confirmed that his volunteers continued delivering until the 4 January announcement of a full national lockdown.

But as local Conservative councillor for Hellesdon, David King, told EDP:

“As councillors, we are supposed to be leading by example and only making essential trips, so it doesn’t feel particularly right to me. I do not see delivering political leaflets as essential travel and I would not ask any volunteers to do it.”

Meanwhile down in Eastleigh, local Conservative MP, Paul Holmes, has branded Lib Dem activists “deeply irresponsible” over similar newsletter deliveries under their Tier 4 restrictions.

Speaking to the Southern Daily Echo, Holmes said:

“At a time when we know the virus is spreading rapidly, local Liberal Democrats are engaging in unsafe physical campaigning which poses a risk to residents. Surely when we are all making enormous sacrifices and grandparents are going without seeing grandchildren to stop the spread of Covid-19, Eastleigh Liberal Democrats can see that putting out party political leaflets is wrong?”

Other parties are equally dismayed. Eastleigh Labour campaigner, Sam Jordan, who said that members of his family who are shielding had received Lib Dem newsletters, told the Echo: “I’m very disappointed and very angry. We suspended all physical engagement once the pandemic really took off.”

Elsewhere in Hampshire, according to the Andover Advertiser local residents have received copies of the ‘Andover South Gazette’ from the Lib Dems – a publication that sounds rather like one of the Lib Dems’ misleading fake newspapers that we heard so much about during last year’s general election.

Test Valley Liberal Democrats defended the party’s actions, saying that they had been acting “in accordance with national legal guidance and advice received by our HQ”.

But also speaking to the Advertiser, Hampshire Constabulary contradicted that advice, saying: “We have been made aware of campaign leaflets being delivered in the Andover area, for which there is no exception for under the previous Tier Four regulations and now the national lockdown”, the police reportedly also writing to the local Liberal Democrats with “appropriate advice”.

It has been a similar story in Basingstoke, according to reports in the Basingstoke Gazette  that the Lib Dems’ lack of respect for coronavirus rules designed to keep people safe is far from a new development. The second national lockdown began on 5 November, but local Lib Dem campaigners had reportedly been out delivering their ‘Focus’ leaflets in Mickleover regardless. Criticising the party’s activities, a local Conservative group spokesperson told the Derby Telegraph:

“No right minded person would dream of campaigning at a time like this whilst everyone else is focused on supporting Derby’s efforts to keep Covid-19 infection rates down … That is why the behaviour of the Lib Dems is particularly disappointing. It’s shameful and demonstrates a staggering lack of judgement and, above all, is hugely disrespectful to the public.”

Councillors from other party groups, the Reform Derby group and Labour, both also confirmed they had halted local deliveries on November 4.

So what is this guidance from Lib Dem HQ that local Lib Dem activists are quoting as carte blanche to continue with their leaflet deliveries, regardless of the resurgent pandemic?

Advice evident from Lib Dem HQ, as updated on 8 January 2021, continues to encourage leafleting, playing down the idea of the virus spreading on surfaces like glossy paper, despite official advice confirming that it can indeed be spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.

Professor Peter Wahl, who is leading the UK Research and Innovation team on how coronavirus spreads on surfaces, has said:

“Apart from airborne direct transmission, indirect transmission via surfaces, in particular in public spaces, can play an important role in spreading the disease.” 

A study published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine has also revealed that the virus survives on cardboard for 24 hours. We all know this well enough by now and presumably Lib Dem activists, after coming in from delivering their leaflets into thousands of houses, like the rest of us take the time to clean the surfaces of items that come into their homes. Why? Because it’s a well-established risk of contagion, however much the party may wish to play with words and self-servingly slide out of it.

Slippery Lib Dem HQ advice to activists goes on to claim that “The current lockdown guidance and legislation expressly permit people to leave their home to provide voluntary services that cannot reasonably be undertaken from home”, offering a link to government guidance that purports to endorse this view. However, it is a typically stretched interpretation of those rules to imagine “voluntary services” extends, beyond helping those needing support during lockdown, to delivering self-promotional, political leaflets. Especially when the same rules are also peppered with references to only “essential activities” being permissible.

As the information at the given link makes crystal clear, “You must not leave or be outside of your home except where you have a ‘reasonable excuse’. This is the law.” Does leafleting to promote a political party sound like a “reasonable excuse” or an “essential activity”? Hardly.

What’s more, Hampshire police, at least, seem to agree, having told the Andover Advertiser that they saw “no exception” to Tier 4 or lockdown rules for the delivery of campaign leaflets.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Lib Dem HQ is giving defective advice to party to activists, which has the potential to put the public in greater danger of the virus spreading. Yes, other items continue to be delivered through letterboxes. But that should not be taken by Lib Dems as licence to put out all items that can or should be delivered. Lockdown rules are often contradictory but are designed as far as possible to limit activities that risk spreading the virus.

And, yes, it appears there may still be elections in May and it is important that democratic debate continues. But this is January. The pivotal point, as corona cases again rise, is what constitutes an “essential activity” and “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave home. Yet revealingly, rather than deploy their own common sense in the public interest, the party’s local activists are happily quoting their HQ’s contemptibly self-serving guidance. Guidance which has now been contradicted by at least one police force.

Are the Liberal Democrats more interested in promoting themselves and trying to improve their political standing, than respecting coronavirus rules and keeping people safe during this currently resurgent pandemic?

On the basis of this evidence, that sadly does look to be the case. If you have seen Lib Dem leaflets being distributed during Tier 4 or lockdown restrictions in your area, please post the details and links to any local media coverage in the comments below – or email direct to LibDemWatch.