A police chief has warned those who flout the coronavirus lockdown that they could be arrested and end up with a criminal record for not following the rules.
When asked if his force would be prepared to arrest people for things like sunbathing or gathering in large groups, Northamptonshire Police chief constable Nick Adderley said: “Yes, it’s an option. What I’m saying is we’ve got to get really serious with this, people are dying every day.”
In a later press conference, the chief constable said the force would not at this point “start to marshal supermarkets and checking the items in baskets and trolleys to see whether it’s a legitimate, necessary item”.
“But again, be under no illusion, if people do not heed the warnings and the pleas I’m making today, we will start to do that,” he said.
The comments about supermarket shoppers sparked a backlash, with chief constable Adderley tweeting later: “I will keep reiterating the position, we will NOT be searching trolleys or baskets and we will not be determining what is and isn’t an essential item. The point I was making was around the necessity of the journey.”
Following their chief constable’s comments, Northamptonshire Police’s official Twitter account was also later forced to “clarify some suggestions made in the media”.
It posted: “We absolutely will NOT be searching people’s shopping trolleys in Northamptonshire.
“The same message was communicated to our officers from the very moment we were given these new powers…”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought in stringent measures restricting people’s movements last month in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Under the lockdown, Britons can – with some exceptions – only leave the house for “very limited purposes”:
- To buy essential supplies such as food and medicine
- To do one form of exercise a day close to home
- To travel to work if they cannot work from home
- And for any medical need, including to donate blood or provide help to a vulnerable person
Police have the powers to enforce the rules if people do not comply, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.
Under powers given to them by government legislation, if members of the public do not comply, police may:
- Instruct them to go home, leave an area or disperse
- Ensure parents are taking necessary steps to stop their children breaking the rules
- Issue a fixed penalty notice of £60, which will be lowered to £30 if paid within 14 days
- Issue a fixed penalty notice of £120 for second time offenders, doubling on each further repeat offence
Those who do not pay fines could be taken to court, where magistrates will be able to impose unlimited fines.
And, if an individual continues to refuse to comply, police may arrest them.
There have been claims some forces have been overzealous in their approach to policing the new laws and guidance.
However, a recent YouGov survey suggests a majority of Britons are supportive of the police’s handling of the lockdown so far.
Downing Street has said police have the government’s “full support” in enforcing the lockdown, with the PM’s spokesman saying: “We have given them a job to do. They will use their own discretion about how they best do that job.”
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The Guardian reported that a number of police chiefs want ministers to consider strengthening the lockdown, amid worries that a growing minority will break the rules this Easter weekend, with temperatures in some parts of the country set to reach 25C (77F).
But Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said police chiefs are “not asking for any further restrictions”.
“Our approach across the country remains the same – to engage with people, explain the rules, encourage them to go home and finally, if we have to, we will use enforcement,” he said.
Chief constable Adderley said his force had “stepped things up” in Northamptonshire and wanted to “hone in on” the minority who continue to break the rules.
“We’ve given the public three weeks to get used to this, this is a massive change in their lifestyle and how they operate,” he said.
“We worked on the basis of engagement and information and from today I’m being really clear that if people continue to flout the law that they will be fined and, if appropriate, they will be arrested.
“The vast, vast majority here in Northamptonshire – and I hear from colleagues across the country – are abiding by the law. To those people I say thank you.
“It is just a minority now that we need to hone in on.”
He said NHS workers were “sacrificing their lives to protect us”, as he urged the public to play their part by staying at home this weekend.
“It is only right that we ask the public to play their part,” the chief constable said.
“In the main they are, but it’s that hardcore of individuals that if they refuse, yes they could be issued with that ticket, if they continue to refuse to move on or go home as being requested, there are other powers. Which could mean that those individuals will be arrested.”
And in a bid to deter visitors to the area this weekend, Devon and Cornwall Police have tweeted that the area is “closed”.
“Please do not visit us now. You will be welcomed back when the time is right,” the force’s message continued.
“We will be policing our roads and other transport networks over the Easter weekend and ask you not to travel.”
When the PM introduced the lockdown on 23 March, he said it would be reviewed every three weeks.
An announcement is due to be made next week, with the measures widely expected to continue.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said ministers will decide whether to “enhance or change” the lockdown rules, adding that Britons have to “stick to the path that we’ve chosen” and stay at home over the Easter weekend.
He confirmed a crunch meeting this afternoon will “determine the process” for how the COVID-19 lockdown extension decision will be taken while Mr Johnson is still in intensive care.