Several other forces have publicized details of their own similar responses, which include spot road checks on anyone seen driving. Meanwhile, a trade body for convenience store workers said “heavy-handed” officers were telling shopkeepers they couldn’t stock Easter eggs, lashing out at “overzealous enforcement and a misreading of the rules.”
Figures from across the political spectrum have raised concerns.
A former UK Supreme Court Justice, Johnathan Sumption, warned British policing risks slipping into territory usually occupied by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.
“This is what a police state is like,” Sumption told BBC Radio on Monday. “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.”
But those increased powers have nonetheless created an awkward dynamic in a country where police do not carry arms, and where the friendly caricature of a “bobby on the beat” still resonates.
The confusion is only heightened by the fact that Britain’s lockdown is looser than those in countries such as Italy or Spain. People are permitted to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities, exercise, providing medical services, or going to work if it is absolutely vital.
The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, told BBC Radio on Tuesday that people should not drive to a rural location to to take their dog for a walk — yet that’s not banned in the regulations, either.
Police urged to maintain public trust
Widespread debate about police coronavirus tactics first emerged last week, when Derbyshire’s force posted a video of drone footage showing unwitting people walking through the area’s Peak District National Park.
The clip highlighted a number of vehicles at a roadside stop, before featuring a couple walking their dog, and another man going for a walk by himself.
It did not appear obvious that either party was flouting the government’s guidelines on outdoor exercise. But the guidelines also warn against traveling, leading Derbyshire Police’s video to label the trips “not essential,” sparking a backlash online.
“We understand that people will have differing views about this post, however, we will not be apologetic for using any legal and appropriate methods to keep people safe,” the force responded on Twitter.
Since then, numerous examples of strict crackdowns have been highlighted — usually by police forces themselves, which have publicized their methods on social media, including spot checks on road users.
Criticism of police methods has been far from universal, and those ignoring social distancing rules by gathering in parks or holding parties have equally been the targets of public anger.
Shapps, the Transport Secretary, told Sky News on Tuesday that “the police are doing a difficult job and they are doing it well,” though he added: “I am sure there are individual examples where perhaps you look at it and think that is perhaps a bit further than they should have gone.”
But sensing the mounting concern over officers’ approach, one of the UK’s most senior police officers urged colleagues on Monday to maintain “the trust and confidence of the public.”
“How we police this pandemic will be remembered for many years to come,” assistant commissioner Neil Basu wrote in an opinion piece in The Telegraph newspaper.
Calls for clarity
Media reports on Tuesday suggested that the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) was issuing new guidelines to forces in the wake of mounting complaints, although a spokesperson for the NPCC disputed those suggestions in an email to CNN.
“We are not rewriting our guidance. It remains the same as it was. Engage, explain, encourage and finally enforce,” the spokesperson said. “This is a fast changing situation and we, along with the public, are adapting as we go forward.”
Nonetheless, some legal experts have pointed to widespread confusion and an overly harsh interpretation of the government’s lockdown measures as the cause of alleged overreach.
“Some police think that their job is to enforce the government’s guidance, when in fact their job is to enforce the law,” Raphael Hogarth, an associate at the Institute for Government think tank, said on Twitter. “The law is that you may not leave home without a reasonable excuse. The legislation gives non-exhaustive examples of such excuses.”
“Some police forces seem to be using their powers without any regard to the purpose for which these powers were conferred,” he added. “The purpose of the legislation is to stop the virus spreading, by stopping unnecessary inter-household contact.”
Indeed, confusion about what is and is not enforceable in the government’s hastily-prepared lockdown legislation has been apparent even among lawmakers.
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock fell foul of his local police force after posting a picture showing him celebrating the birthday of his father — the now-retired former leader of the opposition Labour Party, Neil Kinnock.
“We know celebrating your Dad’s birthday is a lovely thing to do, however this is not essential travel,” South Wales police told him over Twitter. Although Kinnock was sitting a sizable distance from his parents, the government’s restrictions specify that people should not visit relatives unless it is essential.
“We need to be really careful here,” Liberal Democrat lawmaker Layla Moran said on Twitter, responding to complaints that convenience stores were being told they could not stock “non-essential” Easter eggs.
“Making a trip only for an Easter egg is clearly against the rules. But picking one up with the bigger shop for the kids? The Government needs to give sharper guidance for (local authorities) and Police on the application of the new laws,” she added.