The military can help the police as they target Covid-19 rule breakers, the PM has announced – six months to the day since he appeared flabbergasted at the suggestion officers could be involved at all.
During a daily press briefing on March 22 – just a day before the UK went into full national lockdown – the PM was asked by a reporter if the government would consider using the police to enforce social distancing rules.
“Bring in the police?” he responded, apparently shocked at the suggestion that officers could be involved in maintaining a host of regulations enforced by the government.
Just four days later it was confirmed that police would in fact be given new powers to enforce rules, with fines issued to those contravening the rules on leaving home “without reasonable excuse”.
Now, exactly half a year on from the UK’s first lockdown and facing the reality of a second wave of Covid-19, Boris Johnson told MPs in the Commons that not only will fines be increased for those violating the “rule of six”, but armed forces personnel could be brought in to help police fulfil their duties amid the pandemic.
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Johnson said there would now be “greater police presence” on the streets with “the option to draw on military support where required”.
Later on Tuesday Downing Street confirmed that the armed forces would be able to help fulfil certain police duties such as office roles and guarding protected sights to free up officers, but would not be granted “additional powers”.
The PM’s official spokesperson said: “To further free up the police to have a greater presence on our streets they will have the option to draw on military support, where required, using tried and tested mechanisms.
“This would involve the military back-filling certain duties, such as office roles and guarding protected sites, so police officers can be out enforcing the virus response.
“This is not about providing any additional powers to the military, or them replacing the police in enforcement roles, and they will not be handing out fines. It is about freeing up more police officers.”
It’s far from the first time Johnson’s government has shifted stance during the pandemic. Just hours before announcing that the army could fulfil some policing roles, Michael Gove admitted that the government’s push for workers to return to offices had been reversed.
The government’s official position, confirmed by the PM during his speech, is now that employees who can work from home should do so wherever possible.
The U-turn follows a dozen other reversals, which include the wearing of masks, the abandonment of algorithm-produced exam results, and bans on evictions.