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31 March 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:29am

What can police actually force you to do in the coronavirus lockdown?

Police forces have been accused of overreaching their new powers to keep people indoors during the pandemic.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As the UK has shut down all but essential services to see it through the coronavirus pandemic, police have been given new powers to enforce the rules.

Last week the government announced the new public health regulations that police in England could enforce, and the penalties to punish non-compliance. Here are the rules the government laid out online when they announced these measures:

Individuals will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example, a run, walk or cycle – alone or with members of their household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where they cannot work from home

Participating in gatherings of more than two people in public spaces is also not permitted except in very limited circumstances, for example, where it is for essential work purposes.

Here are the penalties police can impose:

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To ensure people stay at home and avoid non-essential travel, from today, if members of the public do not comply the police may:

  • instruct them to go home, leave an area or disperse
  • ensure parents are taking necessary steps to stop their children breaking these rules
  • issue a fixed penalty notice of £60, which will be lowered to £30 if paid within 14 days
  • issue a fixed penalty notice of £120 for second time offenders, doubling on each further repeat offence

Individuals who do not pay a fixed penalty notice under the regulations could be taken to court, with magistrates able to impose unlimited fines.

If an individual continues to refuse to comply, they will be acting unlawfully, and the police may arrest them where deemed proportionate and necessary.

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Since these new powers were announced, some police officers appear to have taken them too far.

Derbyshire police used a drone to film dogwalkers and ramblers in the Peak District. An officer in north London’s Edgware threatened a bakery manager with a fine for drawing two-metre chalk markings on the pavement to aid social distancing. Warrington police issued summons to “multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items” and those “out on a drive due to boredom”. South Wales police publicly admonished Stephen Kinnock MP for posting a picture of himself sitting metres away from his father’s front doorstep on his birthday (he said he had brought the 78-year-old essential supplies). A 13-year-old boy in West Yorkshire was taken to custody because he wouldn’t give his details to an officer asking why he was out.

The former Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption has likened these excessive actions to those of a “police state”, and foreign secretary Dominic Raab told the daily coronavirus press conference on Monday: “Obviously we need some common sense.”

Overzealous enforcement and shaming people for their behaviour arises from the grey area between what is actually written in the legislation – the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 and equivalents for the rest of the UK – and the government’s advice and guidance (as quoted at the top of this piece), which is regularly tweaked and updated at the daily No 10 press conferences.

For example, the legislation simply states that citizens can “take exercise either alone or with other members of their household” – it is government advice to restrict this to once a day. Another “reasonable excuse” for going outdoors, outlined by the legislation, is “to obtain basic necessities, including food and medical supplies” – it doesn’t tell you what that food should be, nor does it insist just one person per household goes shopping at any one time. It’s just government advice that you should try and restrict this to one person, and shop as infrequently as possible.

Still, the emergency legislation is “sweeping and drastic”, according to the lawyer Mike Schwarz for Bindmans, who specialises in civil liberties and citizens’ freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

“It represents a draconian expansion in police and state powers,” he tells me. “It should be measured against its ability to tackle the virus now. But no one should be in any doubt that it poses a significant long-term threat to individuals’ human rights, the fabric of the rule of law, the protection of the vulnerable and excluded in society.

“The question I ask myself is this: will the damage done to these interests be repaired after the virus is under control?”

At the moment, police are simply being urged by the government to interpret the law for themselves, and “apply their common sense and discretion”. A Home Office spokesperson said:

“The overwhelming majority of people are doing the right thing and staying home to protect the NHS and save lives.

“The police response includes four-steps – engaging, explaining, encouraging, and then enforcing and we fully support this approach.

“Above all, we are expecting people to follow the guidance on when to go out with the police using their professional judgement and powers to enforce this.”

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and College of Policing are “rushing through guidance” for police officers, according to a Guardian report, which will include reminders that “they cannot bar people from going for a run or a drive”. This guidance will warn “forces not to overreach their lockdown enforcement powers”.

The College of Policing is due to publish this guidance shortly, but neither the College of Policing nor the NPCC gave an indication of its contents when asked for comment.