Coronavirus: What powers do the police have?

Police on patrol by Brighton pierImage copyright

Lockdown rules are changing across the UK.

But who is responsible for making sure people follow them?

Rules or guidelines?

Police have the biggest responsibility for enforcing coronavirus laws – the rules that everyone must follow. These differ across the UK’s four nations.

But not everything you are asked to do is a legal requirement.

Coronavirus guidance describes government recommendations to help control the virus. These are not backed by laws.

Ministers have sometimes used the word “rules” to refer to the law and sometimes the guidance.

Can police make me cover my face?

In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland it’s a legal requirement to cover the mouth and nose on public transport (although some people are exempt). Wales will introduce this rule on 27 July.

From 24 July, the requirement will extend to shops in England – mirroring the position that came into force in Scotland on 10 July.

If you refuse to wear a covering on public transport, police officers can stop you boarding – or direct you to leave.

Police officers in England and Transport for London staff can also issue £100 tickets – but it’s not clear yet how this will be enforced in shops.

The Police Federation, which represents front-line officers, says they can’t spend their time patrolling thousands upon thousands of outlets.

Shop staff and security guards can already detain shoplifters while waiting for the police to arrive. However, the general power of the citizen’s arrest is only exercisable to apprehend criminals committing offences that would go before a judge and jury. A penalty ticket for being socially obnoxious would not cross that high bar.

Instead, police leaders hope shop managers will refuse non-mask wearers entry – rather than turning to the police to solve the problem.

Can I hold a party?

In England, the law allows you to meet in a group of up to 30 people outside, or at home.

Outside means any public place – including beaches, parks, streets and the countryside.

So if you want to organise a picnic or garden party, you can now invite 29 guests.

If you go above that number, the police can turn up and force people to leave. They could issue you with a penalty ticket.

These start at £100 (or £50 if paid within 14 days), rising to £3,200 for six or more offences. In exceptional cases, the Crown Prosecution Service could take someone to court.

But, confusingly, the government wants people to do something different.

Its official guidance – not actually a legal obligation – says: “You should only be socialising in groups of up to two households (including your support bubble) indoors and outdoors or up to six people from different households when outdoors.”

The law in England now allows even bigger formally organised gatherings, providing the people behind it can show they have a plan to minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Officers can turn up and inspect the organiser’s written plan. They can order people to leave if they decide there are genuine dangers.

Lockdown laws in the rest of the UK:

Public places like beaches could close

The law gets more complicated still.

In England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has an exceptional new power to completely close a specific public place.

And he has also given local councils a suite of new powers to close down premises, stop events and shut down places like parks.

This could be used this summer to close beaches or beauty spots if there are concerns about crowds potentially spreading the virus. If the land belongs to the Queen or Prince Charles, a council will first need their permission before it can restrict access.

If your favourite beach becomes what the law calls a “restricted area”, it would be a crime to go there.

Who can force nightclubs or bowling alleys to stay shut?

The final part of the revised law in England covers the shrinking list of businesses still closed.

These are places where there’s thought to be a risk of spreading from close contact – such as nightclubs, indoor skating rinks and bowling alleys.

Police have the power to close these businesses.

However, in practice they’re leaving this to local authorities whose trading standards officers can also enforce the law.

What if pubs and cafes break the rules?

Pubs, restaurants, hotels and hair salons can now open in England – but they could still be forced to close.

That’s because they have a legal duty to keep their staff and customers safe.

The Health and Safety Executive oversees laws and guidance on a safe working environment. Like the police, it can enforce the law if it believes there is a danger – for instance in an overcrowded factory.

Environmental health officers – part of your local council – are also on the front line as they also have responsibility for local safety and, like the police, respond day and night. They’ll be inspecting premises for potential health risks.

Businesses that are open must be able to show they have plans to reduce the risk of transmission – for instance by creating one-way systems around their premises.

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Getty Images

Image caption

Officers patrol a busy bar street in Soho

If a premises was the source of an outbreak, local public health directors could close it while the virus was tackled. This is a long-standing power that has been used to contain other diseases.

Local lockdowns

Leicester is subject to the first UK local lockdown.

Police can break up gatherings of more than six people – and residents aren’t allowed to stay away overnight, other than in the home of their bubble household.

But the city isn’t actually walled in, legally speaking.

If a Leicester family fancies a clothes-shopping spree in Nottingham – because stores are still open there – there’s legally nothing to stop them.

Instead, the government hopes people’s sense of civic responsibility will see them follow guidance to stay at home.

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