Coronavirus: Public reporting neighbours to police for violating lockdown amid confusion over rules

Senior officers confirm it is not against new public health laws to exercise outside more than once a day

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 27 March 2020 14:38 GMT
Police disperse sunbathers in London

Police are being inundated with calls from members of the public reporting their neighbours for allegedly violating coronavirus lockdown rules.

But there is confusion over the restrictions, and senior officers confirmed that, despite government guidelines, exercising outside more than once a day is not illegal.

While 999 calls have fallen in recent days, calls to the 101 non-emergency number have risen because of people making the reports and checking the regulations.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said officers would “respond in a proportionate way”.

“A number of things we would normally be responding to in terms of big events, pubs and the night time economy, and schools, are not there to respond to,” he told a press conference held over video call on Friday.

“It demonstrates that there is a sense among the population that this is really serious.”

Police officers have been given powers to fine people for breaking public health regulations brought in by the government to prevent the spread of the virus, and arrest people for not complying with orders if necessary.

But there has been confusion over the extent of restrictions on exercise and travel.

Advice on the government’s website states that people should only leave home for “very limited purposes”, including shopping for basic necessities, travelling for work purposes and “one form of exercise a day”.

Parks and beauty spots have been closed because of overcrowding, and police in Derbyshire sparked controversy by using a drone to film walkers in the Peak District.

But the NPCC’s lead for out of court disposals, Deputy Chief Constable Sara Glen, said it was not illegal to drive somewhere for a walk or exercise outside more than once a day.

Police Federation chair says it's not 'realistic' for officers to enforce all lockdown rules

“The law doesn’t say once a day, the law doesn’t specify what type of activity that would be,” she added.

“There isn’t anything definitively in the legislation that talks about whether people can get in a car to drive to a place and do their exercise.”

Ms Glen said the law does stipulate that outdoor exercise can only be taken with other household members and while complying with social distancing measures.

“These are unprecedented times and we all will have to make our sacrifices,” she added.

“We don’t want everybody going to the same places to do their exercise. We need a common sense approach.”

Fines have already been issued for breaking the new laws, which will be in place for six months and ban gatherings of more than two people not from the same household.

The penalties, which can be increased to a maximum of £960 for repeat offenders, will not be recorded as a criminal conviction.

Senior officers said people will only be arrested as a last resort if they are failing to comply with a direction after having the law and public health risk explained to them.

“We are not looking to criminalise people but we have to have some way of enforcing it,” Ms Glen said.

“We police by consent in the UK and we do not take that lightly.”

Police community support officers talk to a man on a street in Brighton during the lockdown (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty) (AFP)

Known as the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, similar rules will be in place across Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The rules will be in place for an emergency period that must be reviewed at least once every 21 days.

Mr Hewitt, who is leading the British police response to coronavirus, said he was conscious of the damage that perceived “heavy-handedness” could cause to public relations.

He did not give direct support to Derbyshire Police’s use of drones to film walkers, but said busy beauty spots could become a health risk and added: “We are not in normal times, we are in a time of national crisis and we need people to adjust their behaviour… we don’t want places of natural beauty to be packed.”

Mr Hewitt said police forces were entitled to use roadblocks to check people’s movements, adding: “This is a national emergency, it’s not a national holiday and it’s important that people understand that.”

Police forces have been issued with guidance on how to enforce the rules, which includes giving support to homeless people, as well as those who cannot safely remain in their homes.

Domestic violence and child abuse are expected to rise while the current measures are in place, and officers are urging victims to continue contacting police, helplines or charities.

Leaders are monitoring changes in crime and demand caused by the dramatically reduced number of people on the streets, closure of pubs and leisure venues, and lack of sporting events.

Mr Hewitt said there had been “isolated” increases in hate crime against people of Asian appearance, and “minor shoplifting and arguments” in supermarkets.

There has also been a dramatic rise in coronavirus-linked fraud and online scams, and the use of coughing as a “weapon” against police and key workers.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced on Thursday that people who deliberately cough on emergency workers during the coronavirus outbreak will be jailed for up to two years.

Mr Hewitt would not say how many police officers were currently off work because of the outbreak, but said the figure was “not close to worst-case scenario” of one in five staff.

“At the moment across the UK we are comfortably within the margins that allow us to carry out our duties and support work to prevent the virus spreading,” he added.

“Inevitably there will be things we can no longer do as a police service [but] there are no types of crime we will not longer respond to.”

Mr Hewitt said that if falling staff levels mean regional forces have to enact their contingency plans, priority will be given to public order, violence or life in danger and safeguarding vulnerable people.

Voluntary special constables are being released from their day jobs in order to work for the police, and the government is offering incentives for retired officers to return.

“Once we’ve exhausted all of those options – and we are a significant distance from that now – we can use our well-rehearsed arrangements with the military,” Mr Hewitt said, stressing that soldiers would “backfill” rather than take up frontline roles.

“I’m confident that we will get this right and the vast majority of the public will change their behaviour, and we will only use these new powers with common sense and discretion for a very small minority of people.”

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