Easter weekend: Covid warning from police amid fears new rules ‘almost impossible’ to enforce

NPCC predicts challenge in deciding who is and is not breaching restrictions, as ‘Arctic’ weather puts a stop to sunbathing

Andy Gregory,Vincent Wood
Thursday 01 April 2021 22:35
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Rubbish left in Hyde Park, London following heat and lockdown easing

Police chiefs have warned that enforcing new lockdown rules may be “almost impossible” ahead of a long Easter weekend which is likely to see people across the country meeting outdoors, despite an end to the recent sunny spring weather.

The easing of tight lockdown restrictions after three months led to vast crowds gathering together on beaches and in parks across England this week, drawn out by the new freedoms and balmy temperatures not seen in the month of March for 53 years.

In Nottingham, repeated mass gatherings by a “thoughtless minority” forced local authorities to close two parks on Wednesday, after footage shared online of the hundreds-strong crowd was labelled “frightening” and a “frenzy” by the city council leader, with workers left to clear mounds of rubbish.

Parts of the UK saw temperatures reach 24C on Wednesday, only just short of the nation’s hottest ever March temperature of 25.6C, recorded in 1968.

The long Easter weekend is expected to be cooler, with temperatures struggling to reach double digits by Sunday.

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Nicola Maxey, from the Met Office, said: “There are some blustery winds around, particularly along the east coast, as we go through the weekend. It’s a marked change from what we saw on Wednesday and by the end of Friday we’re really all in this cold air – we’re in an Arctic trough.”

Ms Maxey said that parts of the south would hang on to warmer temperatures for the longest but that by early next week the entire country would be in single figures.

Describing some of the rule-breaking scenes reported across England as “disgraceful” on BBC Breakfast, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) chair Martin Hewitt said that “the vast majority of the public have worked with” police.

But he said officers were still encountering garden parties involving dozens of people, adding: “Unfortunately there throughout has been this persistent core of people who have been determined not to follow the rules.”

Ahead of the Easter weekend, forces across the country have issued pleas for the public to enjoy their recently regained freedoms responsibly, including those in Sussex, North Yorkshire, and Cheshire.

Notably, the addition of the rule on Monday that two households plus their support bubbles can meet up outdoors “in a group of any size” appears to be a cause for concern.

In a statement given to The Independent, Mr Hewitt said: “Following the reintroduction of the ‘rule of six’ and the ability for two households to meet, it will be more of a challenge for officers to distinguish between who is and who isn’t breaching restrictions.

“But we’re confident that most people will respect the rules and stick to the regulations.”

However, one senior police official reportedly went further, telling The Daily Telegraph that law enforcement figures had “made it very, very clear to government that they have made it almost impossible to enforce the rule of six”.

“It used to be relatively simple,” the source was reported as saying. “As long as you can count to six, you can enforce it as seven is beyond the rule. Now you could have 26 people in a group, 13 from each household. That makes it very, very difficult.”

Rule-breaking mass gatherings have not been limited to the UK. Belgian police deployed water cannon and mounted police to break up people who had gathered in Brussels for a fake festival that was started as an April Fools’ joke.

It comes after The Independent reported fears of an “exodus” of police officers after a year of them having been left to “pick up the pieces” of hastily written and badly communicated laws during the pandemic – with many officers saying they are “sick and tired” of juggling the competing demands of coronavirus laws and normal crime.

Meanwhile, Mr Hewitt warned this week that forces’ lack of legitimacy among black communities threatens their efficacy, saying that forces must recruit more black officers into their currently disproportionate ranks and change “generations of history” to improve levels of trust between police and black communities – which he said were currently running at a deficit of nearly 20 per cent compared with the average.

Asked by the BBC how police will respond this weekend to scenes such as those criticised in recent days, Mr Hewitt suggested officers would continue to follow College of Policing and NPCC guidance for police to Engage, Explain, Encourage and Enforce Covid rules.

“We will carry on doing what we have always done, which is engage with people,” he said. “I do think the rules are pretty clear, and this change in the rules, we’ve known about this for some time. So we’ll explain the rules, we’ll encourage people to follow them and if people don’t then we will move to enforcement as we have done throughout the pandemic.”

According to the NPCC, police in England and Wales have issued some 95,000 fixed penalty notices to people who have deliberately breached the rules.

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.

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