Coronavirus: What powers do the police have?


Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists in cars to check that their travel is "essential"Image copyright
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Police have been told to be “consistent” when applying new measures introduced to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It follows criticism that some forces have gone too far when trying to ensure people follow the rules.

What powers do the police have?

Police across the UK now have wide-ranging powers to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, by enforcing social distancing measures designed to keep people apart.

The three key tools the police have been given are:

  • The power to detain someone to be tested if they are believed to be infectious
  • The power to restrict your right to move around and to be part of a gathering

But there is an enormous gap between what the government would like people to do and the actual limits of the law in restricting movement. This restriction has come into force as a “statutory instrument”. That means it was created by ministers in each part of the UK with no debate or vote before it became law.

The rules are broadly the same in each part of the UK but each country has its own regulations:

This means individual police officers have enormous discretion and there will be differences in how they are being implemented. And that has led to accusations that some are being over-zealous.

What punishments can police enforce?

A police officer can order a non-essential business to close while the coronavirus regulations are in place.

If someone refuses to do so, they can be given an on-the-spot fine of £60, reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days.

If they keep breaking the law, more fines can be given – up to a maximum of £960.

Police could ultimately charge someone with the more serious criminal offence of breaching the coronavirus regulations and directions to follow them. This could lead to a conviction in a magistrates court and an unlimited fine.

Police can also issue an on-the-spot fine, or ultimately charge someone with a crime, if they break one of two key social distancing rules:

  • Leaving the place where they live “without reasonable excuse”
  • Being in a public gathering of more than two people

What is a reasonable excuse to leave home?

A “reasonable excuse” which would avoid a fine includes:

  • Going shopping for “basic necessities” (food, medicine and items essential for the home and its upkeep
  • Exercise, including with family members
  • Travelling to and from work, if “absolutely necessary”

Police can’t order you home if you’re out helping someone else with their care, off to the doctor, or carrying out another public service.

Most importantly, it is not a crime to leave your home to flee harm – for example, domestic abuse.

How is this different to what the government wants?

But this is where the problems start.

There could be “reasonable excuses” that the government has not thought of.

And the government’s instructions to the public for preventing the spread of coronavirus go far further than the laws police have to enforce them.

Take exercise. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “People will only be allowed to leave their home for… one form of exercise a day”.

That sounds like a clear legal order – and the science behind it may be very clear, particularly in cities.

But his government has not made that the law in England – and the position is the same in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, in Wales, which sets its own health regulations, exercising more than once a day is now against the law.

The law is also vague if you’re self-employed.

You have a reasonable excuse to be away from home if it is not possible to work there. But a police officer could decide your work is not essential and order you home.

It has left many people confused, with Nottingham Police revealing their switchboard was jammed by callers asking for advice.

Have police misused the powers?

Derbyshire Police have taken the most flak by following Peak District walkers with a drone – and pointing out they’d parked in a public car park.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption says the force had gone too far, but its chief constable says the drone operation was aimed to prevent the national park being over-run, increasing the likelihood of contagion.

Last week police chiefs told a national media briefing that they wanted people to go to “local” beauty spots, if they feel the urge to go walking, while observing social distancing. But the law doesn’t require walking to be local – nor does it ban you from driving to the countryside to go walking.

Cheshire Police says it has summonsed someone to court for going out for a drive because they were “bored”.

But the law says nothing about going for a drive – only about going out without a “reasonable excuse”.

So is relieving the boredom of being stuck inside a reasonable excuse? What if a drive clears the head after a particularly stressful of lockdown? Well, we won’t know unless that’s tested in court by someone who refuses to pay a fine – or appeals it.

What are police now being asked to do?

Officers are now being told to follow to follow the “Four Es”:

  • Engage with people – ask them why they are out
  • Explain the law and the need to be inside, stressing the risks to public health and the NHS
  • Encourage them to go home if they have no reasonable excuse
  • Enforce only as a last resort

The National Police Chiefs Council has urged people to use their common sense – by thinking about whether they should be leaving home. And it wants officers to exercise their discretion by focusing on the law’s aim and purpose.

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