Officers can use force if lockdown is defied
A three-step government plan to keep people in their houses during the lockdown would allow police to cajole people to go home. If that does not work, they could issue fines. And if that fails, they will be allowed to use force, the Guardian has learned.
Police will be authorised to use force to send people back home if they refuse to obey the coronavirus lockdown, under the latest government plans.
Ministers will issue fuller details today of how police will enforce the lockdown ordered by the prime minister on Monday, which is aimed at stopping the spread of the virus by keeping people apart.
The Guardian has learned that under plans being discussed by ministers and senior officials, officers would first encourage and cajole people to go home if they suspect them of being in breach of the ban. If that and the issuing of a fine failed, reasonable force could be used as a last resort.
Exemptions are expected to be built in for those fleeing domestic violence, for religious ministers tending to their duties, separated parents seeing their children, the homeless and those complying with bail conditions.
Justifications for being outside, already announced by Boris Johnson, include exercising once a day, buying essentials such as food and medicine, caring duties and going to work if it is impossible to work from home. Gatherings of more than two people are banned.
Fines under a fixed penalty notice will start at £30 and if paid will not lead to a criminal record. If someone refuses to pay, they can be prosecuted. Delays in paying and further breaches will lead to escalating fines.
Under the plans, if an officer on patrol sees someone out of their home and believe they are breaching the lockdown, they start a “four-step plan”, according to multiple sources.
The officer will engage – that is, ask the person why they are out. Then they are to explain why the ban is needed to stop the virus spreading and save lives. Then they will encourage the person to return home. This could include suggesting the best route home.
After these steps, an officer can issue a fine and if the person still refuses to comply, police will be authorised to use “reasonable force” to take someone home.
During the first two days of lockdown, police say few people have been out in defiance of the ban or gathering in groups of more than two. Those challenged by officers have complied.
People will have 14 days to pay a fine. Children under 18 will be taken back home to their parents or guardians. It is not clear if adults will be expected to pay fines for children they are responsible for.
Before details of the penalties emerged, a police leader warned of a potential shift in relations between police and communities. Stephen White, the acting police and crime commissioner for Durham, said relations with communities could be strained, as policing was based on consent and a presumption of innocence.
“We don’t want to have a society when you step out the door there is a cop saying: ‘Where are you going?’”
White, a former leader of rankand-file officers when he was chair of the Police Federation, and a former police marksman, said: “Are we going to assume innocence or guilt? … What are the grounds, reasonable belief or evidence to dish out a fine?
“What are the checks and balances on police officers using these draconian powers going to be?” he said. “It’s going to be a minefield.”
Police will face potential sensitive situations if the lockdown is still in place when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts on about 23 April. Usually worshippers visit mosques after dark.
Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution also may be concerned about giving an authority figure their name and address.
Andy Cooke, the chief constable of Merseyside police, speaking before details of the plans emerged, said police leaders were keen to see the details of plans. He said any enforcement would be rare. “You rely on goodwill but there might be a small bunch of idiots who have to have enforcement used against them.”
A tube train packed with commuters despite the lockdown announced to try to curb the spread of the virus