Coronavirus: Police do not have capacity to launch ‘manhunts’ for people refusing to self-isolate, senior officer says

Figures suggest hundreds of people are getting away with breaking the law by not answering their doors to police

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 30 September 2020 18:01 BST
£10,000 fines for breaching self-isolation rule

Police do not have the capacity to launch “manhunts” for people who violate coronavirus rules by refusing to self-isolate, a senior officer has said.

Figures released on Wednesday suggest that hundreds of people are getting away with breaking the law by giving false details or not answering the door to police.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), told a virtual press conference that crime levels had risen back to pre-pandemic levels in England and Wales.

“There is a real pressure on the police services at the moment,” he said.

“We have demand pretty much back to where we were before the outbreak in March. That is placing the normal demands on the service – and over and above that, we are playing our role in the coronavirus response.”

Mr Hewitt said the NPCC had asked the government for extra funding for coronavirus patrols.

As well as the recent “rule of six” restrictions and numerous local lockdowns, another new law came into force this week, making it illegal to refuse an official instruction to self-isolate in England.

A separate law had already made it an offence to violate self-isolation requirements after returning from selected countries and areas.

If public health authorities suspect that someone is not complying, they can refer cases to police, but officers have no power to enter people’s homes.

Of the 4,114 referrals made to police by 22 September over self-isolation following travel, 3,216 people were found to be complying.

Another 218 people were found to be breaching regulations but were not fined after being “encouraged to self-isolate”, and only 38 fines were issued.

In 440 cases, police received no answer when attending properties and could take no enforcement action, and in another 240, officers found that “nobody with the relevant name lived at that address”.

Mr Hewitt said details were given to Border Force officials at ports and if the names did not match, the “only assumption you can make is that those details weren’t provided accurately or weren’t recorded accurately”.

“Is that a foolproof system that stops anyone avoiding it? No, it isn’t,” he said.

Asked whether people were “getting away with it” by being out or avoiding police when they knocked at the door, he said: “There is not the capacity to be getting into a manhunt scenario looking for people. People have got to accept responsibility.”

If police are unable to get an answer following a visit, follow-ups are suggested; if those fail, the information is fed back to the Border Force.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said the figures showed “huge gaps in the enforcement system for quarantine of people arriving in the country”.

“There clearly isn’t any robust enforcement system in place and that is very bad for public health and also very frustrating for all the people who are doing the right thing and abiding by the quarantine rules,” the Labour MP added.

“The Home Office needs to urgently review the effectiveness of this system and estimate how many people are likely to be breaching the rules. The government have had months to get this right – they need to get a grip.” 

Number of fines issued for violating wider lockdown restrictions falls as crime rises back to 2019 levels
Number of fines issued for violating wider lockdown restrictions falls as crime rises back to 2019 levels

About half of more than 18,900 fines issued for breaking the Health Protection Regulations, which enforced the UK-wide lockdown and have since been changed to restrict gatherings, have not been paid.

As of 22 September, 9,413 people were being considered for prosecution and could add substantially to the backlog of more than half a million court cases in England and Wales.

There is no way to appeal other than refusing to pay, and Mr Hewitt would not comment on calls by parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights for processes to be changed.

Figures show that the vast majority of fines were issued during the strictest lockdown and only 151 fines were issued across England and Wales in the past month, including in areas subject to localised restrictions.

Only 15 penalties had been handed out for breaking the “rule of six” by 22 September, but Mr Hewitt said the figure was expected to rise, while 18 people have been fined £10,000 for holding large gatherings, including music events, protests and parties.

Fewer than 100 fines have been given to people refusing to wear face masks by police, mostly on public transport.

“Coronavirus is something we have all had to rapidly adapt to, and officers have had to pick up new regulations at a record pace, and apply them across the population,” Mr Hewitt said. “The number of instances where enforcement action is necessary at all is a fraction of the total engagement we have had with the public.

“We expect to see a rise in the number of fines issued, now that more regulations have come into effect … The country is at a critical point and personal choices will matter during the weeks and months to come.”

Some police forces have seen an increase in 101 calls since the “rule of six” came into force on 14 September, Mr Hewitt said, “reflecting people ringing to offer intelligence around potential breaches of regulations”.

Overall, however, figures for the four weeks to 30 August show that calls to 101 were still lower than in the same period last year, while 999 calls were returning to normal numbers.

Statistics for the same period show crime levels returning to pre-pandemic levels, with overall offences 3 per cent lower when compared with last year.

Rates of residential burglary, vehicle crime and shoplifting were still significantly lower, which police suspect is mainly due to a lack of opportunity as more people are working from home.

Recorded rape rose by 4 per cent year-on-year and domestic abuse by 7 per cent in the same period.

Assaults on emergency workers rose by almost a third, but Mr Hewitt said most were “assaults without injury”, including coughing and spitting.

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