Police will not be able to enforce the new “rule of six” coronavirus restrictions amid public confusion and rising crime, officers have warned.
There was uncertainty about what the new law would cover on Friday afternoon, as the wait for updated regulations to be published continued.
Police officers had not seen details of the new restrictions or received guidance on how they will be enforced.
Boris Johnson announced the change on Wednesday but – like other coronavirus laws – MPs have not been able to scrutinise them before they come into force on Monday.
The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers in England and Wales, said there had been “confusion for the public and many people don’t know exactly what the law says”.
Chair John Apter called for the government to start an “effective” information campaign, adding: “For policing, these constant changes to legislation are becoming the norm. The pressures on policing have increased significantly over recent months, and this latest change will add to this pressure.”
Brian Booth, chair of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said it was not helpful to have “grand announcements” that were not followed by detailed guidelines.
“Everybody is in the dark, it shouldn’t be like that,” he told The Independent. “If the government says they’re going to infringe on people’s lives, they have to tell them how.”
In an interview on BBC Breakfast, health secretary Matt Hancock said the new rules would be “rigorously enforced by the police”, but officers have warned that forces no longer have the capacity to proactively check if people are following them.
Figures released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) show that crime has risen back to pre-coronavirus levels following a sharp drop during the tightest period of lockdown.
Mr Booth said officers “simply can’t enforce” the new restrictions, adding: “We just don’t have the resources, the world has woken up again and it’s busy.
“We’re back to dealing with threat, risk and harm - domestics, assaults, missing people, mental health incidents, road accidents and everything that comes under normal policing.
“Resources are outstripped with that demand, never mind adding on Mrs Miggins reporting that seven people are having a barbecue next door.”
Zoë Wakefield, chair of Hampshire Police Federation, echoed the warning and said the “police cannot be expected to deal with everything”.
She added: “There is much confusion among the public. Calls to the police and crime levels are almost as they were pre-Covid.
“The police do not have additional resources to allocate to Covid-related matters, so this places extra demands on officers who are already working near capacity.”
Mr Booth said police wanted to support the public health response but “have to prioritise” incidents where there is an immediate risk.
Concerns have been raised over the potential for people to hold large parties and unruly gatherings over the weekend as a “last hurrah” before the new law comes into force at midnight on Sunday.
Mr Apter said: “There is a real risk some members of the public will take advantage of the current situation and treat this weekend as a party weekend ahead of the tighter restrictions being introduced on Monday.
“Alcohol and warm weather are not a good combination at the best of times. Using the current situation as an opportunity and excuse to party would be incredibly irresponsible and put pressure not only on policing, but potentially on the ambulance service and NHS.“
Mr Booth said he was more worried about social mixing during university freshers’ weeks and urged people to voluntarily comply with regulations to slow worsening Covid-19 infection rates.
“We really need the public to step up to the plate because if we don’t get this right and have a second spike, there will be a catastrophic effect on the country’s finances and we will be living with the consequences for the next 10 to 15 years,” he added.
The Cumbria Police Federation urged the public not to “shoot the messenger” over the new restrictions, which will be punished by default £100 fines, reduced to £50 if paid within two weeks.
Chair Paul Williams said: “We understand why this is happening – I just hope that the public who will understandably be frustrated will not seek to take it out on those officers trying their best to ensure the guidelines are being adhered to.
“For this to work, the message has to be loud and clear from the government to prevent confusion and help us do our job.”
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, urged people to follow the new law voluntarily.
“Everyone has a role to play limiting the outbreak by following the regulations, including those about gatherings which are now limited to six people both indoors and outside,” he added.
“Officers will continue to be out in communities - engaging, explaining and encouraging people to act responsibly. We will take enforcement action where necessary.”
Several MPs complained that parliament was not able to debate the new law on Friday.
Raising a point of order in the Commons, Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope said: “I'm very concerned about the lack of opportunity for people, the public first of all, to see the text of these new regulations and I'm also concerned about the continuing reluctance of the government to give any opportunities to members to debate this.
"What we are talking about is the most draconian introduction of new restrictions on our liberty with criminal sanctions and we need to be made aware of what's happening and given the opportunity of debating it."
Responding, Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said: “Can I say I share your disappointment as well. I think we should all be informed and the country should also know what's going on.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies