Last night Boris Johnson announced a virtual lockdown for 3-weeks when he said, ‘You must stay at home.’ The prime minister warned that people would only be allowed outside to buy food or medication, to exercise once a day (alone or with household members), or to travel to work, if absolutely necessary.
He said that if you don’t follow the rules, ‘the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings’.
The emergency Coronavirus legislation is expected to become law as soon as Thursday – the bill is to be debated in the House of Lords today and tomorrow, with the Government hoping that there will be no Lords amendments, so that it can promptly receive royal assent. It has been announced that the new powers within the Coronavirus bill will be in force for two years and subject to renewal every six months.
In the coming days, the police will possess the proper powers to enforce breaches of the new rules. Such powers may feature under the key area of ‘containing and slowing the virus’ in the emergency legislation, by reducing unnecessary social contact. Alternatively, the powers may come from a regulation (a statutory instrument), with mention of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984.
The prime minister talked of police powers through fines and dispersing gatherings (of more than two people – the only two exceptions being where the gathering is of a group of people who live together and where the gathering is essential for work purposes). It is presently unknown exactly what the fines will be or indeed whether there will be grounds to justify an arrest, in certain circumstances.
It will be interesting to see whether the new controls mirror in some form the powers of the police when it comes to Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs – a type of fixed penalty notice that is available in England and Wales for a specified range of offences). A fixed penalty notice, initially set at £30, has been mooted.
Under Part 3 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the police already possess certain dispersal powers, including the requirement that a person committing or likely to commit anti-social behaviour, crime or disorder, should leave an area for up to 48 hours, in order to provide immediate short-term respite to the local community.
In the lead up to any new laws being passed, Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council said, ‘We are working with the government and other agencies to consider how these new rules can be most effectively enforced.’ The NPCC has also explained that police officers would be providing the necessary advice, but if people do not accept the advice, then they would be given a fine.
The police need to be permitted to continue to do the valuable work that they do on a daily basis, which will require a significant degree of support and understanding from the general public during this extremely difficult and unprecedented time. Police officers will no doubt use their own discretion in their use of these new powers.
Once the new powers come into force, it will be fascinating to see how the police adapt to the practicalities of policing a lockdown and the challenges that undoubtedly come with it. For example, we expect that the police will likely concentrate on the dispersal of groups, as they cannot possibly enforce the rules of shopping for only ‘essential items’ and exercising once a day, since there is no way of being able to do so properly.