Thousands of unpaid fines for breaches of Victoria's tough coronavirus restrictions are set to be dropped with police officers instructed to hand out cautions instead.
Rather than proceeding with charges for unpaid infringements, officers have been told to issue cautions in a move that's bound to infuriate Victorians who have already paid the $1652 fine.
And it means that most people caught breaking the law during the pandemic will be able to avoid a conviction without paying a cent.
The Police Association has also warned the new direction threatens to undermine the enforcement of not just future public health orders but other fineable offences.
Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt said it was a "wee bit frustrating" for members.
"None of this was fun for our members, it was a bit of a thankless job to be fair," he told 3AW radio.
"You need to be careful if you've taken to do something you actually do it because otherwise the people that it harms are the people on the front line who are then asked to enforce and hold it all together in a time of crisis.
"Decisions that might be taken now that may have an impact on future enforcement efforts down that track, whether they be in the COVID space because we're not right ahead of this just yet, but certainly in any form of enforcement.
"We don't go out there and say to people routinely who are infringed for not wearing a seatbelt that we'll proceed this way if they contest it at court because we know then that people stopped without a seatbelt probably won't pay their fine."
At least 25,000 coronavirus fines valued at more than $40 million were handed out by Victoria Police during 2020 for breaches of the chief health officer's directions.
But only 845 of the 19,324 infringements issued by August 24 last year had been paid.
Only $1.45m in payments had been received by August 24, a little over 5 per cent of the total value, while 1489 had been withdrawn or cancelled and 3455 infringements - about 18 per cent - had reached the notice of final demand stage.
The new policy represents a major backflip from authorities after Premier Daniel Andrews said in October that all fines must be paid and warned "we will come after you if you don't".
"There's too much at stake here and many of these fines, if not all of them, are the result of choices that people have made, and they are the wrong choices, they are unsafe choices," he said at the time.
"If you want to avoid a fine follow the rules."
Under the new direction only repeated, deliberate or continuing breaches of the chief health officer's restrictions, or those infected with coronavirus who refused to isolate, would be hit with charges if they failed to pay, The Age reported.
Others, including some people who received numerous COVID-19 fines, would be placed on a diversion order, which allows someone to avoid a conviction and payment of the fine by giving an undertaking to the court.
Sergeant Gatt said the direction appeared to be an instruction from Victoria Police command.
In a statement, Victoria Police said a three-tiered system had been developed to "ensure consistency across the organisation when dealing with reviews or contested infringements" for breaches of the coronavirus restrictions.
"This approach is standard practice, provides direction, consistency and parity and ensures our continuing enforcement approach is appropriate and the issuing of fines properly targeted," a spokeswoman said.
Victoria Police said from the start of the pandemic they had made it clear fines would be issued for deliberate and blatant breaches and that "approach had not changed".
Breaches of the chief health officer's directions in Victoria attracted a $1652 fine, with a penalty of $4957 for more serious breaches, while failing to wear a mask in public cost $200.
Originally published as Thousands of COVID fines to be dropped