People who deliberately cough on emergency workers during the coronavirus outbreak will be jailed for up to two years, prosecutors have warned.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said coughing will be charged as an assault on an emergency worker, or common assault if used against other key workers or members of the public.
The intervention came amid numerous reports of police and shop workers being deliberately coughed on by people claiming to have coronavirus.
Max Hill QC, the director of public prosecutions, said: “Emergency workers are more essential than ever as society comes together to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am therefore appalled by reports of police officers and other frontline workers being deliberately coughed at by people claiming to have Covid-19.
“Let me be very clear: this is a crime and needs to stop. The CPS stands behind emergency and essential workers and will not hesitate to prosecute anybody who threatens them as they go about their vital duties.”
Assaults specifically against emergency workers are punishable by up to two years in prison, while common assault has a maximum sentence of six months.
But if the incident is found to be racially or religiously aggravated, the sentence can be increased to two years.
Police have also been given the power to arrest people or fine them up to £960 for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules in England.
“Individuals who do not pay a fixed penalty notice under the Regulations could be taken to court, with magistrates able to impose unlimited fines,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
“If an individual continues to refuse to comply, they will be acting unlawfully, and the police may arrest them where deemed proportionate and necessary.
“However, in the first instance the police will always apply their common sense and discretion.”
The CPS issued its warning over coughing after a 45-year-old man appeared in court for claiming to have coronavirus and coughing at Metropolitan Police officers who were arresting him for another offence.
Darren Rafferty, from Dagenham in London, admitted to three counts of assaulting an emergency worker on Wednesday and will be sentenced at Snaresbrook Crown Court on 1 April.
Another man was jailed after threatening to spit at police officers who asked him why he was out in Blackburn following the lockdown brought in on Monday evening.
David Mott, 40, was jailed for 26 weeks after admitting possession of an offensive weapon, possession of a class B drug and threatening behaviour.
More than 20,000 cases of assaults on emergency workers have been prosecuted since the law came into force in November 2018.
John Apter, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, had called for harsh punishments for people coughing on officers during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve certainly seen some examples of that where my colleagues are targeted by these vile creatures using coronavirus almost as a weapon, it defies belief,” he told BBC News on Tuesday.
“We need to deal with these idiots and deal with them robustly.”