People should challenge their neighbours for “one-off” breaches of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown rather than calling the police, according to new official advice.
A statement on the official Ask the Police website said that forces were “likely to be inundated with such reports and may struggle to respond to them all immediately”.
“We therefore advise that in relation to one-off incidents, you initially speak to the people about your concerns, if you can do so safely and within the social-distancing measures,” it added.
“Constant and blatant non-compliance with the rules can be reported to your local police force, but due to high demands on the police at this time, we advise that such reports be made online if possible.”
Critics compared the move to “vigilantism” after NHS workers reported being threatened when neighbours saw them leaving home.
An NHS worker in Swansea shared a photo online of a handwritten note reading: “Covid-19 – go home or we will report you to the police.”
The man said he wanted to raise awareness as “we’re aware we’re not the only NHS staff to be caught up in this type of misconception”.
Police leaders said forces had been inundated with calls from members of the public reporting alleged lockdown violations.
Wiltshire Police chief constable Kier Pritchard told the BBC that his force alone received more than 700 calls over the Easter weekend.
Police are encouraging the public to report alleged breaches online rather than using 999 or the 101 non-emergency number, with many forces setting up dedicated forms for coronavirus-related reports.
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), previously said officers would “respond in a proportionate way” and prioritise breaking up mass gatherings.
Police have been given the power to arrest and fine people for breaking the new health protection regulations, which enforce the lockdown but are less strict than government guidance.
The gap has created widespread confusion, with parliament’s human rights committee raising concern that people may be punished for perceived breaches without legal basis.
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee last week, the head of Derbyshire Police said 11 per cent of its calls now related to coronavirus.
Chief Constable Peter Goodman added: “We believe some of that is misguided and a little bit may be malicious – people getting their own back on their neighbours – but most of it has been legitimate concern by people wanting to do the right thing.”
Chief Constable John Robins, of West Yorkshire Police, said his force had also seen a “significant increase in calls around the public not complying with restrictions”.
Overall crime has dropped by 21 per cent in the past four weeks, according to the NPCC, while police have handed out more than 1,100 fines for breaching coronavirus regulations.
A report published by parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights last week said it was concerned about “online forms seeming to encourage people to report on their neighbours for potential infringements of ‘the rules’”.
It found examples of police forces referring to government “guidance” and “advice” rather than the law.
“This has caused alarm amongst members of the public that there could be a risk of a breakdown in trust between citizens, at a difficult time where mutual support and aid is of critical importance, and also the consequent risks to trust between the police and the public,” said chair Harriet Harman.
“This will almost certainly engender an atmosphere of mutual distrust and intrusive behaviour, which arguably the state should not be encouraging.”
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