Coronavirus: Police told to arrest and fine public for breaking lockdown rules as ‘last resort’

Senior officers concerned about damaging public relations following warning over potential riots

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 31 March 2020 14:14 BST
Some police may have gone too far in enforcing lockdown, senior Tory admits

Police leaders have told regional forces to arrest and fine people for breaking the coronavirus lockdown as a “last resort”, amid a backlash over some tactics.

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) said officers should first “engage, explain and encourage” people to follow the new public health regulations, and “only as a last resort, enforce”.

It has drawn up guidance with the College of Policing that has been distributed to all forces in England and Wales.

Amid dramatically different levels of enforcement in different areas, it calls for a “coordinated approach” and “single style and tone” across Britain, according to the BBC.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, suggested some forces had gone “too far” on Tuesday.

“The police are doing a difficult job and they are doing it well,” he told Sky News.

“I am sure there are individual examples where perhaps you look at it and think that is perhaps a bit further than they should have gone.”

He added: “But in general terms I think the case is that if people help everybody out, including the police, by staying home and the rest of it, then there will be no problems.”

The comments came after Derbyshire Police sparked a backlash by filming walkers in remote locations using a drone, and some forces set up roadblocks to question drivers.

Police in Warrington said six people had been summonsed to court for coronavirus-related offences by Sunday morning, including suspects who were “out for a drive due to boredom” and “going to the shops for non-essential items”.

Officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists to check that their travel is ‘essential’ in York
Officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists to check that their travel is ‘essential’ in York (AFP/Getty)

In Leeds, a 13-year-old boy was arrested under the heath regulations and taken into custody for failing to give an officer his address so he could be returned home on Saturday morning.

Lancashire Police issued 123 fines for breaches of the rules over the weekend, while the number in other forces is believed to be significantly lower.

Some senior officers are concerned that perceived heavy-handedness will damage public relations and the model of policing by consent.

Official government modelling of the effects of a lockdown said the risk of rioting could be increased by police “actions that are experienced as excessive and which prevent the public from accessing services they believe they have a right to access” such as shops and hospitals.

A document, which was used in government planning, called for police to “support rather than control” the general public.

NPCC chair Martin Hewitt said leaders were “trying to achieve consistency”.

“We are running an operation to try to coordinate policing across all the forces of the UK that are all dealing with these issues in their own context,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“So, we will constantly be striving to achieve that level of consistency and we will be looking at the way the issues are being dealt with and the good practice as well as things we think maybe we wouldn’t want to do in that way.

”But we are going to have to learn as we go along because this is very challenging, the measures are unprecedented for anybody to be dealing with, both for the public and the police.“

On Monday, a former Supreme Court judge compared the enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown to a “police state”.

Lord Sumption said the force had “shamed our policing traditions” by appearing to enforce government guidelines, which are stricter than the law itself.

“The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences, but only legal regulations which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance,” the retired judge told Radio 4’s The World At One. “This is what a police state is like.”

West Midlands Police chief constable Dave Thompson rejected the comparison in a series of tweets on Tuesday.

He said people were reporting “breaches of advice that are not within the law” to the force, adding: “Officers and staff are doing their best and the public are following the advice. The use of powers is minimal.

“There have been a small number of cases I have seen where I think this could have been done differently. However comments about a police state are widely off the mark.”

Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick has told her force only to use the new powers as a last resort.

“My approach in this service is one of entirely trying to encourage people, to engage with people and to have conversations,” she said.

“We are adopting a very collaborative approach with the public.”

There are concerns that a slew of charges and summons for lockdown breaches could overwhelm the criminal justice system, after the outbreak caused more than half of courts to be closed as they only deal with urgent cases.

Lawyers have warned of a “meltdown” as the crisis adds to a pre-existing backlog of 37,434 crown court cases.

Ian Kelcey, co-chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said the government’s guidance was not enforceable in law.

“Assaults on emergency workers will be dealt with as a priority but summonses for walking their dogs won’t be rushed to court,” he told The Independent.

“The system couldn’t cope with the demand and it’s all early days with this. It’s a question of people applying common sense interpretation to the regulations.”

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