The new legislation
The Coronavirus Act 2020 ("the Act") and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (the Regulations) allow police officers to support and enforce public health measures. The Act and Regulations include powers to detain people and put them in appropriate isolation facilities, if necessary to protect public health, using reasonable force.
'Heavy handed' enforcement
Some forces have given summons to members of the public for activities such as going out shopping for non essential items, or for driving long distances to take a walk in the country with members of their household. Although these activities may not be advisable at the current time, they are not against the law and cannot be enforced by police.
There is a huge difference across the country in relation to the volume of summonses issued so far, some forces have given hundreds and other forces none.
Most of us know that the police are doing their best in an exceptionally difficult situation and most members of the public are voluntarily complying with the government's request to 'stay at home'. By carrying out their duties, preserving the Queen's peace and in enforcing the new laws against those who continue to flout them, officers are at risk of contracting the virus.
It is inevitable that mistakes will be made in these challenging times where there is a serious and imminent threat to public health. Forces across England and Wales would be well advised to coordinate efforts and maintain a consistent approach, relying on helping the public to comply by consent.
Being overzealous does no good for the police reputation in the long run and it is important that public trust is maintained.
Official guidance – explain, educate and encourage
In order to enforce these restrictions, police officers should firstly encourage voluntary compliance by educating people about the risks to public health and the NHS.
Officers are able to use reasonable force where it is a necessary and proportionate means of ensuring compliance. Enforcement should be a last resort.
The burden of enforcement of the temporary offences falls heavily on the police, and they are doing an excellent job in the majority. Officers are advised to follow the 'explain, educate and encourage' notion and only resort to enforcement of the laws if completely necessary. Of course 'completely necessary' is in itself open to interpretation. New guidance due should be of assistance to ensure a consistent approach in these very difficult times.
Already, police officer numbers have dropped due to the pandemic, as officers are not available for duty because they either have covid-19 symptoms or because they are self isolating. With limited time for officers to get to grips with the new powers there is potential for mistakes, which could lead to an influx of complaints and civil claims. Police officers would be well advised to keep detailed notes of their actions. Their decision-making processes are likely to come under scrutiny once normal life resumes, and documenting this will assist greatly in defending any claims. Officers should also consider their own personal safety when enforcing the Regulations, by following guidance from Public Health England and making use of any PPE provided.