Enforcement “a last resort” – police chiefs agree “common sense” approach to applying emergency coronavirus law

Some forces had been accused of adopting heavy-handed stance on restrictions on movement

The body representing senior police officers in the UK says that enforcement of government rules regarding restrictions on movement during the coronavirus pandemic should only be undertaken as “a last resort.”

Confirmation of the approach police forces should adopt follows media coverage in recent days of inconsistent application of the rules, with Derbyshire Police in particular coming under strong criticism after it shared a video on social media aimed at discouraging people from visiting the Peak District National Park.

The force was also criticised for suggesting that “Lycra-clad cycling”  was unacceptable in the current environment.

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In a statement shared on Twitter this morning, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and College of Policing said that a four-phase approach is being adopted. The statement reads:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) new police regulations

Engage – officers will initially encourage voluntary compliance.

Explain – Officers will stress the risks to public health and to the NHS. Educate people about the risks and the wider social factors.

Encourage – officers will seek compliance and emphasise the benefits to the NHS by staying at home, how this can save lives and reduce risk for more vulnerable people in society.

Enforce – officers will direct individuals to return to the place where they live. This may include providing reasonable instruction of the route by which the person is required to return. Officers may also remove that person to the place where they live, using reasonable force where it is a necessary and proportionate means of ensuring compliance.

Officers will make sensible decisions, employ their judgement and continue to use other powers.

Enforcement will be a last resort.

The guidance comes a week after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the country was going into lockdown to try and contain the spread of coronavirus, with people allowed to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons.

Those are to do essential shopping, to care for a vulnerable person, to travel to work so long as it could not be undertaken from home, and to undertake one form of exercise a day, including walking, cycling or running, so long as it is done alone or with members of the household.

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However, there has been inconsistency in the approach of different police forces in how to interpret and enforce those rules, with confusion over what constitutes “essential” shopping as well as just how long people should be allowed to exercise outdoors.

Ahead of the new guidance being issued, former supreme court judge Lord Sumption told BBC News that the UK risked becoming a “police state,” singling out Derbyshire Police which besides posting the Peak District drone footage mentioned above also dyed the water in the national park’s Blue Lagoon black to discourage people from swimming there.

He said: “The behaviour of the Derbyshire Police in trying to shame people in using their undoubted right to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the fells so people don’t want to go there is frankly disgraceful.

“This is what a police state is like, it is a state in which a government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

According to the Guardian, the new guidance was drawn up after NPCC chair Martin Hewitt, who took up his role last year having previously been Assistant Commissioner Frontline Policing at the Metropolitan Police, contacted colleagues across forces in England and Wales at the weekend to discuss consistency in enforcing government rules.​

The newspaper said that issues covered in detailed guidance to officers include that there are no restrictions on driving to undertake exercise, nor on people only being able to leave their homes once a day to exercise.

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Emergency legislation was introduced and rushed through parliament to become law on Thursday in a bid to enforce physical distancing and slow the spread and death toll from Covid-19.

Andy Marsh, chief constable of Avon & Somerset Police, told BBC Newsnight: “I had a conversation with other chiefs and Martin Hewitt and we talked about the style of our enforcement and the engagement and explanation that went before and we all agreed that we wanted to see this done with the consent of the public.

“We’re not going to enforce our way out of this problem.”

He added that the rapidly evolving situation, and the fact that emergency legislation was only approved by Parliament last Thursday, inevitably meant that police forces were “figuring out some of this stuff as we go along.”

Durham’s police and crime commissioner, Stephen White, police and crime commissioner in Durham, commented: “I think policing is confused about what it is being asked to do.

“Police officers have no power to stop people going to the Lake District. It takes a long time to build up trust and a short time to destroy it.”

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Police Chief Commissioner Cressida Dick highlighted that some people were unaware of the restrictions on movement that the government had introduced.

She told LBC: “Already we have had examples of people who simply hadn’t quite heard all the messages – and, only as a very last resort with the current restrictions, using firm direction or even enforcement.

“We’re not doing what you might call road blocks or anything like that,” she added. “Yes, we stop motorists sometimes, we have a conversation with them.”

The law itself makes no mention of only being allowed to undertake one form of exercise outside the home per day, and in his address to the nation last Monday evening the Prime Minister made no reference to how long such exercise should last.

The emergency legislation – The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 – makes just a brief reference to exercise, as an exception to section 6 (1), namely: “During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse”  covered by Section 6. (2) “For the purposes of paragraph (1), a reasonable excuse includes the need—” (b) “to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household.”

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Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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