With daily updates and new guidelines coming out from both the UK government and health officials, you’d be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed when it comes to coronavirus advice. However, when Boris Johnson addressed the nation on March 23 and announced the most stringent policies yet – a national lockdown, aimed at protecting people from the coronavirus pandemic – police were granted the power to arrest and fine individuals shortly after, if they are breaking the rules. Now that Dominic Raab has confirmed another three weeks of lockdown, how are the UK’s lockdown measures being enforced?
During the national TV address of March 23, Johnson outlined the few instances in which people are allowed to leave their home: shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible; to exercise once a day, alone or with members of your household; to fulfil any medical need, provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and travelling to and from work, but only where absolutely necessary.
To ensure compliance, the government immediately closed down all shops selling non-essential goods. Libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms, and places of worship were also shut down. All social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, except for funerals, were cancelled, as were gatherings of more than two people in public excluding the people you live with.
While ministers assumed that the vast majority of people would “comply with relevant public health advice”, measures set out in the 329-page Coronavirus Bill, which came into effect on March 26, mean that police, public health officials, and immigration officers currently have the power to detain people refusing to follow health guidance and limit their movements to stop the spread of coronavirus.
On April 16, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, deputising for the Prime Minister while he recovers from his own bout of the COVID-19 virus, extended the lockdown by at least three more weeks. Raab said that whilst the current government measures were working, “any change to our social distancing measures now would risk a significant increase in the spread of the virus.” But what does that mean in reality?
What powers do the police have?
Police guidelines made public on the same day as the extension announcement give advice as to what constitutes a "reasonable excuse" for someone to leave their home in the lockdown. The three-page document is designed to help police enforce the emergency restrictions that came into effect on March 26.
While individual police officers have discretion in their interpretations of “reasonable excuses”, the police force has been given three key powers during lockdown: to detain someone to be tested if they are believed to be infectious; to close a wide range of non-essential businesses; and to restrict your right to move around and be part of a gathering.
What is a “reasonable excuse”?
The police guidelines, which were “designed to help officers remain consistent with criminal justice colleagues”, say members of the public can go outside if there's a "reasonable excuse", such as shopping for essential items, providing medical help and for exercise, as stated by the PM on March 23. But it also highlights more specific circumstances such as buying food for several days, including "luxury items and alcohol", is likely to be reasonable.
It adds that the public are not allowed to go to a hardware store “simply to redecorate a kitchen”, but can purchase tools and supplies to repair a fence “damaged in recent bad weather”, for example.
What will happen if I get caught breaking coronavirus lockdown measures?
While legal powers already exist for police to arrest anyone failing to comply, you may first be told to go home, leave an area, or disperse to maintain the two-metre distance from each other. Following that, if you do not follow instructions or where it is deemed necessary, you may be taken home, or you may be arrested.
How much can you be fined for breaking coronavirus lockdown measures?
Any adult who commits an offence under the regulations could be handed a £60 fine. If paid within two weeks, that fine will be reduced to £30, however second-time offenders will be issued an £120 fixed penalty, doubling on each further repeat offence to a maximum of £960. If you do not pay your fine you could be taken to court, where magistrates have the power to impose unlimited fines.
Under the rules, police can also "ensure parents are doing all they can to stop their children breaking the rules."
Can you be arrested for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules?
Yes. Anyone who refuses to comply and abide by the restrictions can be arrested under the Coronavirus Bill.
Separately, anyone who coughs or spits on key workers (or threatens to do so) will face serious criminal charges. Two men in England have already been convicted; one of them has been jailed. The move comes after reports of essential workers being coughed at by people claiming to have the virus.
Max Hill QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, said: "Emergency workers are more essential than ever as society comes together to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Let me be very clear: this is a crime and needs to stop. The Crown Prosecution Service stands behind emergency and essential workers and will not hesitate to prosecute anyone who threatens them as they go about their vital duties."
What will the police do during lockdown?
Police forces across the country have set up checkpoints, per The Independent, to stop vehicles and check with drivers if their journey is absolutely essential.
In addition to the new powers, the government has unveiled a support package to boost police resources. Around 1,500 additional police officers have already joined forces across England and Wales since September 2019. Existing Civil Servants volunteering as Special Constables are being encouraged to assist in the national effort. And those officers nearing retirement, as well as the recently retired, are being encouraged to return or remain in active duty.
Speaking about the new police powers, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "The Prime Minister has been clear on what we need to do: stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives. All our frontline services really are the best of us and are doing an incredible job to stop this terrible virus from spreading. That’s why I’m giving the police these new enforcement powers, to protect the public and keep people safe."
If you or someone you’ve been in close contact with appears to have shown or be showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, visit the NHS website in the UK to find out the next steps you should take or visit the CDC website in the U.S. for up-to-date information and resources. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.
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