Police chiefs have told officers that people should not be punished for driving a reasonable distance to exercise, and that blanket checks were disproportionate, in a bid to quell a row about heavy-handed enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown.
Amid anger at some forces setting up checkpoints and using drones to target people visiting rural beauty spots, the guidance reissued and updated late on Tuesday aims to forge more consistency across 44 forces in England and Wales.
It is issued by the College of Policing, which sets professional standards, and the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), and tells officers both what they can do and what police leaders would prefer them to refrain from doing.
It sticks to the powers in the emergency law passed last Thursday, and not statements made by senior government figures about what they wanted the public to do. The two had been contradictory and were the source of potential confusion for some officers.
One police chief, whose force had been caught in the eye of the storm caused by forces applying the powers differently, said on Tuesday the new laws had been “unclear”.
The draconian powers were given to police to enforce an unprecedented lockdown closing non-essential shops, banning gatherings of more than two people and restricting when people can be outside their homes.
The guidance stresses officers “police by consent” and that during the pandemic, people must have a reasonable excuse to leave their home to stop the virus spreading and resulting in a spike in fatalities.
Announcing the lockdown last Monday, Boris Johnson said people could exercise only once a day. But in the briefing from police leaders, no limit is stated as to how many times people can exercise, with the guidance to officers saying valid excuses to be outside include “to take exercise alone or with other members of their household”.
The sight of checkpoints by some police forces caused alarm, while others did not feel the need to set them up on the British mainland. Police in north Yorkshire, for instance, set up checkpoints to stop people and enquire about their destination.
The briefing to officers, which they will be expected to follow, says: “The coronavirus act and coronavirus regulations do not explicitly confer any powers on police officers to stop vehicles.”
It says officers can use the road traffic act to stop vehicles for any reason, and this could lead to offences under the coronavirus act being detected.
But then adds: “Use your judgment and common sense; for example, people will want to exercise locally and may need to travel to do so, we don’t want the public sanctioned for travelling a reasonable distance to exercise. Road checks on every vehicle is equally disproportionate.
“We should reserve enforcement only for individuals who have not responded to engage, explain, and encourage, where public health is at risk,” the guidance says, referring to the ‘four Es’ approach the NPCC previously said will enforce the lockdown.
Officers are told that enforcement actions such as arrest or the issuing of a fine should be used as a last resort.
Several forces have taken no enforcement action since the emergency laws came into effect, finding that explaining and encouraging people to comply has worked. Lancashire police, however, have taken enforcement action 123 times.
The briefing also says parents or guardians can be fined if their children break the law, and force can be used to get a child back home: “If you are dealing with a parent or guardian who is not preventing their child going outdoors and all other avenues to engage, explain and encourage have been exhausted, you should enforce by issuing them with a fine.”
The emergency laws are unprecedented in their scope and breadth for British policing. “Use them during the national emergency while honouring the traditions of British policing,” the guidance says.
“We police by consent. The initial police response should be to encourage voluntary compliance.
“There is no power to ‘stop and account’. The police will apply the law in a system that is flexible, discretionary and pragmatic. This will enable officers to make sensible decisions and employ their judgment. Enforcement should be a last resort.”
Derbyshire’s chief constable, whose force was described as “disgraceful” by a former supreme court judge, had earlier defended the behaviour of his officers. Ch Con Peter Goodman said the emergency laws were unclear, and argued the use of police drones to highlight people exercising on a seemingly empty Peak District was meant to start a conversation.
He said his officers had yet to issue a fine, a summons or make an arrest. He reacted after Derbyshire constabulary was singled out by Lord Sumption, who described the use of the drones as “disgraceful” and reminiscent of a police state.