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The Law and the Virus.

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Coronavirus in the UK: The social restrictions laws that police can enforce - and what is just guidance

Police officers have been criticised for overzealous policing of lockdown rules

By Richard Vaughan

Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 11:56 am


5 hours ago

Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists in cars to check that their travel is 'essential' (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists in cars to check that their travel is 'essential' (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Police forces across the UK have come under fire for their overzealous interpretation of the Government’s social distancing rules brought in to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The issue, which has seen officers stopping people for buying Easter eggs as they are deemed “non-essential items”, has prompted ministers to call for a “common sense” approach to policing the rules.

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Here i looks at what the police can do as per the law, and what is beyond their remit.

What can the police enforce?

According to Raphael Hogarth, an associate for the Institute for Government, the police are “mistakenly” enforcing the social distancing guidance set out by the Government, not the law itself under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.

The regulations spell out that the public can leave their homes because of a “reasonable excuse”, setting out a non-exhaustive list, including buying basic necessities, exercising, giving blood, attending a funeral or travelling to work where they cannot do so at home. But he warns some police forces are insisting people can only leave if it is “absolutely necessary or once a day for exercise”.

“That is a more restrictive test than the regulations, and it is made up law,” Mr Hogarth tweeted.

Why have the police made this 'mistake'?

Much of it comes from the Government itself, issuing its guidance before the law came into force. Boris Johnson gave a speech announcing the lockdown guidance, which specified people should only leave the house for four specific reasons, food shopping, exercise, work or medical need. This has been adopted by many police forces as the law, and policed accordingly giving rise to members of the public feeling the heavy hand of the law for sitting on park benches or buying Easter eggs.

Can police stop people from driving to nature reserves to go for walks?

Ministers have urged the public to do their exercise locally. On Tuesday morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said people should not be making “unnecessary journeys”, and instead should “exercising close to their home”. But according to Mr Hogarth, driving to a secluded spot for a walk that is not busy with people creates no legal issues and cannot be legally enforced. Former supreme court justice Lord Sumption warned excessive policing of social distancing rules risked turning the UK into a “police state”.

What will the police authorities do?

The Guardian has reported that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and College of Policing are crashing through updated guidance spelling out to forces across the UK that despite repeated messages from Government ministers, the police do not have legal powers to prevent people going out to exercise or going for a drive. The Government is eager for people to limit their activities to slow the spread of coronavirus, but the police cannot enforce these wishes.

4 Replies

I did hear that it was trading officers and easter eggs , not the police. But whereas the police showed people walking in derbyshire quite alone they didnt at the same time show all the people and parked cars where my sister lives in the village of Hope, a very popular area for walkers.

Trading Standards Officers would certainly make more sense with regards to the food aspect of the story, but only if there was a quality, rather than a quarantine problem.

I guess the police were reluctant to show larger groups of people out enjoying themselves on a walk, in case it encouraged others.

In fact the publicity did discourage them at Hope as when i spoke to my sister later in the week it was deserted .

I feel very sorry for the police and I' m glad their chief constable spoke up for them.

Most are doing their best in an obviously difficult situation, but I sometimes wonder how some of them manage to pass the psychological test, because it is apparent they have mental health problems and are using the uniform to pursue their personal agendas.