North Yorkshire Police has been accused of “totalitarian” tactics after deploying border patrols and number plate recognition cameras to deter drivers from travelling into the county from areas with stricter coronavirus rules.
The force warned it could take “enforcement action” against anyone from a tier 3 area caught visiting the region to go to a pub or restaurant or for a day trip.
All of North Yorkshire was placed under tier 2 restrictions, which allow hospitality venues to open, when England emerged from its national lockdown this week. But the county is surrounded by tier 3 areas including the northeast, West Yorkshire, East Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, where pubs and restaurants are shut.
The government’s tier 3 guidance state people should avoid travelling out of their area “other than where necessary" and lists work, education, volunteering, caring and medical appointments among the acceptable reasons. However, there is no law prohibiting travel between tiers.
Superintendent Mike Walker, who is leading North Yorkshire Police’s Covid response, said: “I realise there may be some confusion over what is deemed necessary in these circumstances, so I’d like to be clear here. It is neither necessary or acceptable to leave a tier 3 area and enter a lower tier area for a day trip or to visit a pub or restaurant for a meal.
“Please also be reminded that your tier restrictions travel with you and police can take enforcement action against you, if you should breach those restrictions.”
The force said its officers would be “actively patrolling” and would have an increased presence in border areas, while automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras have been installed on roads in the region.
Police have also been stopping drivers entering the country to check why they are travelling.
Adam Wanger, a human rights barrister, said: “There is no legal restriction on travelling from one tier to another, or within one tiered area. There is no power under the regulations for police to stop cars. So in short, this should not be happening.”
Civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch likened the force’s tactics to “totalitarian police behaviour”.
Silkie Carlo, the group’s director, told The Independent: “This is not policing by consent and frankly it has to be stopped.
“There's no law prohibiting people from travelling between tiers, and in fact not even a specific law underpinning the mass surveillance system that is ANPR. We're now living in a growing surveillance state and a civil liberties landslide.
“I'd urge North Yorkshire Police to retract threats of border checks and use police officers' time more wisely."
North Yorkshire Police also faced criticism on social media, with comments on its Facebook page accusing the force of using “scare tactics” and “causing great concern” to people with legitimate reasons for crossing county borders.
“There are no legal restrictions on movement. You should clarify and apologise for misleading the public, to be frank,” wrote one respondent.
Supt Walker stressed fines would only be issued “as a last resort” .
In a statement issued following the backlash, he said: "The introduction of a new set of regulations for the public and business owners to follow raises inevitable questions about the policing and enforcement of those regulations. So I’d like to be clear and state that North Yorkshire Police’s approach to policing the pandemic remains unchanged.
“It is our responsibility to keep the public of North Yorkshire safe, and we take that responsibility incredibly seriously. It’s what every police officer and member of police staff come to work to do and quite rightly, what the public expect of us.
“So, until the threat this virus poses is eradicated, we will continue to play our part in containing it."
The force issued 232 fixed penalty notices for breach of Covid regulations during lockdown. The majority were handed out along the Yorkshire coast.
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