Boris Johnson is facing a fresh row over his new coronavirus “rule of six” curbs after it emerged that the government has exempted grouse shooting and other “hunting” with guns from the restrictions.
Pro-hunting and shooting groups believe they can continue to hold gatherings of between six and 30 people because they are covered by a loophole that permits licensed “outdoor activity”.
New regulations published by the government just before midnight on Sunday have a string of exemptions for sports clubs, wedding receptions and even political protests.
But they also have an exemption for when “a gathering takes place outdoors (whether or not in a public outdoor space)” for the purpose of “a physical activity which is carried on outdoors”, where a licence, permit or certificate is held by the organiser.
HuffPost UK has learned that the Cabinet Office’s special Covid-19 Operations ministerial committee – chaired by Michael Gove – scheduled a meeting on Saturday, with one agenda item titled: “Exemption: hunting and shooting.”
The meeting was abruptly cancelled just hours beforehand, with cabinet ministers and officials told that this issue would be discussed later or via ministerial correspondence.
Insiders believe that the meeting was axed to avoid any ministers raising objections.
Instead, the “outdoor activity” wording was inserted into the regulations, opening the way for an exemption for so-called “country sports” such as grouse and pheasant shooting and hunting.
Brand new government guidance published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Monday lists “shooting (including hunting and paintball that requires a shotgun or firearms certificate license)” as a “sport or organised outdoor activity”.
It appears that foxhunting may not be exempted, but the current position is unclear.
When asked by HuffPost UK if the reference to “shooting (hunting)” included foxhunting, a spokesperson said “the exemptions are as listed in the guidance”.
The Tory party has long been proud of its links to hunting and shooting, believing it boosts rural communities with vital income, and has received donations from its advocates.
Former Countryside Alliance chairman Simon Hart is now in Johnson’s cabinet as Welsh Secretary.
Johnson himself has written in the past said he “loved” foxhunting with dogs, once writing in the Spectator magazine of the “semi-sexual relation with the horse” and the “military-style pleasure” of moving as a unit.
Sir Humphry Wakefield, father-in-law of the PM’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who has shoots on his Chillingham Castle estate in Northumberland, has said “I love shooting, hunting”.
The party’s fundraising balls have frequently auctioned pheasant shooting events in Scotland.
Shooting – including grouse, pheasant and pigeon shooting and “recreational deer stalking” – was one of several activities permitted when lockdown was eased this summer, with no restrictions on how far people could travel to do so.
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation said in a statement: “The latest guidance says that there will be exceptions where groups can be larger than six, including work or voluntary services as well as outdoor sport and physical activity events.
“BASC continues to press ministers for further detail but believes that these exemptions encompass shooting where shoots operate in accordance with Covid secure guidance issued by representative shooting organisations, including BASC.”
The Countryside Alliance also said last week: “From our understanding at present businesses and organised sports operating in England to Covid secure standards will be exempt from the new restrictions on social gatherings.
“Details to follow, but we are confident rural activities will be able to continue with current safeguards in place.”
The Cabinet Office has been approached for comment.