A former Supreme Court judge has likened the enforcement of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown to a “police state” after a spate of arrests.
Some forces have been accused of going beyond the provisions of public health laws enacted last week, after people were summonsed to court for going for a drive and shopping for “non-essential items”.
The Derbyshire Police force was heavily criticised for using a drone to “shame” members of the public walking with members of their household in remote locations.
Lord Sumption said the force had “shamed our policing traditions” by appearing to enforce government guidelines rather than the law itself.
“The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences, but only legal regulations which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance,” the retired judge told Radio 4’s The World At One.
“This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes … there is a natural tendency, of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniform into glorified school prefects.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) had insisted that arrests would be used as a last resort to enforce the Health Protection Regulations 2020.
The law, which came into force last Thursday, gives officers the power to fine people between £30 and £960 for breaking restrictions on businesses, movement and gatherings.
It says that anyone who contravenes a requirement, fails to comply with a “reasonable instruction” or obstructs someone carrying out a function under the new law has committed an offence.
Last Friday, police leaders said officers would explain the rules to people and encourage them to comply voluntarily before issuing a fine or making an arrest.
“We are not looking to criminalise people but we have to have some way of enforcing it,” said the NPCC’s lead for out of court disposals, Deputy Chief Constable Sara Glen. “We police by consent in the UK and we do not take that lightly.”
In the same briefing, NPCC chair Martin Hewitt denied the police service was “an arm of the state”, saying forces were independent and adding: “There is no intention to be heavy-handed.”
But numerous arrests have been announced by regional police forces since the law came into force, sparking accusations of overreach.
A tweet from police in Warrington on Sunday said six people had been summoned to court for coronavirus-related offences, including suspects who were “out for a drive due to boredom” and “going to the shops for non-essential items”.
A 13-year-old boy was arrested under coronavirus laws after refusing to give a police officer his name or address in a Leeds park on Saturday, sparking international news coverage.
West Yorkshire Police said officers had been called to reports of anti-social behaviour and that when then the boy was taken into custody, he gave his name and was identified as a robbery suspect.
He was arrested on suspicion of robbery and de-arrested for offences under the Health Protection Regulations 2020, but no further action was taken following an interview.
Meanwhile, South Wales Police was criticised after commenting in a tweet by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock that showed him talking to his parents from their garden on his father’s 78th birthday.
“We know celebrating your dad’s birthday is a lovely thing to do, however this is not essential travel,” said a tweet from the force’s official account. “We all have our part to play in this, we urge you to comply with government restrictions.”
Mr Kinnock replied saying he was delivering “necessary supplies” to his elderly parents. There has been confusion over the scope of the restrictions, sparking a deluge of calls to the non-emergency 101 number from people seeking advice.
Officers in Raynes Park, London, said they spoke to “multiple people about sitting in the park” on Sunday and added: “The government guidance is clear – you must only leave the house if it is absolutely necessary or once a day for exercise.”
But the law does not specify how many times a day people can leave their homes, and does not go as far as the government advice on exercise.
“The law doesn’t say once a day, the law doesn’t specify what type of activity that would be,” Ms Glen said last Friday. “There isn’t anything definitively in the legislation that talks about whether people can get in a car to drive to a place and do their exercise.”
However, there is room for interpretation in the legislation, which states: “During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.”
Permitted reasons include “to obtain basic necessities, including food and medical supplies”, “to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household” or provide care and assistance to a vulnerable person.
Reports of convenience stores being told to stop selling Easter eggs by council officers have sparked debate over whether “basic necessities” can or should be defined.
The Liberty campaign group said the powers had undergone insufficient parliamentary scrutiny and were “very broad, handing extraordinary new powers to the police”.
Policy and campaigns manager Gracie Bradley added: “Despite the broad scope of these powers, we’ve seen various incidents of police going even further – and beyond their lawful remit. This makes it impossible for people to know how to comply with these new rules, and challenge police when they overreach. There has also been a counter-productive lack of clarity in government statements on these rules.”
The measures are subject to an inquiry by parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which said the risk to life posed by coronavirus could justify violations.
At a briefing with journalists last Friday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “The police will exercise their own discretion in the use of the powers we have given to them and will take whatever steps they consider appropriate to disperse groups of people who are flouting the rules. The regulations signed by the health secretary last week set out what the government’s clear instruction to the public is. Having asked the police to enforce that, we would expect them to exercise their own discretion in using the powers.”