A row has erupted over police strictly enforcing coronavirus lockdown rules that were never actually put in place – including time limits on exercise and the number of people allowed on a shopping trip.
Legal professionals say ministers must now give police clear guidance on enforcing the rules – or risk undermining their entire strategy for fighting the pandemic, with one claiming “inconsistency” will lead to a disintegration in respect the both the law and government guidance on staying at home.
It follows two local policing teams using their social media accounts to publicise action they had taken against people not following advice on leaving the house as little as possible.
Officers in Warrington, part of Cheshire Police, said they had penalised “multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items”, prompting criticism from members of the public.
Government guidelines state people should stay at home unless they are shopping for “basic necessities” or medicine, helping a vulnerable person or exercising once per day.
One Twitter user said: “What is a ‘non-essential item’. There is no definition in the regulations. There is also no regulation prohibiting multiple persons from the same household going to the shops. You’re going to look rather silly in court.”
The Secret Barrister, an anonymous legal professional who wrote a book on the state of UK law, also tweeted about the incident.
“There is nothing in the legislation that prohibits multiple people from the same household going to the shops,” they said.
“Nor is there a bar on going out to buy ‘non-essential items’. Such things may not be desirable, but they are not crimes. This does the police no credit.”
The Secret Barrister told HuffPost UK the problem had been caused by the government’s “confusing communications strategy” and its failure to include specifics in the emergency coronavirus legislation rushed through parliament earlier this month.
“The guidance given by the prime minister at his press conferences, which appears to largely inform that which has been given to police forces, does not in fact reflect what the law says,” they said.
“For instance, many police forces have been enforcing a supposed ‘rule’ that people should not be leaving the house to exercise more than once a day; no such rule applies in the regulations as they apply to England (although, for apparently no good reason, such a rule *does* apply to Wales).
“On a similar note, the prime minister has said that people can only undertake one form of exercise per day; again, this is not reflected in the law he has passed. Much has been said in informal guidance about only leaving the house where “essential”; once again, this is not the language of the regulations.”
The legal expert said problems are “hard to avoid” when new laws are passed “at breakneck speed, with no time for meaningful scrutiny or considered reflection”.
“No doubt that the government, upon proof-reading its efforts, would wish to amend the regulations to make clearer their meaning and to align them more closely with the rhetoric,” they added.
“But at present, what it seems to me is needed is some clear legal guidance for the police, base on what the law actually says, rather than what politicians wish it said.”
Meanwhile police in Leigh, Greater Manchester, posted on their Facebook page that they had stopped a couple going for a long walk, as it was “longer than one hour”.
There are currently no official time limits on exercise in place, although Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told the BBC “a walk of up to an hour” was “appropriate”.
He told the Andrew Marr show: “Obviously it depends on each individual’s fitness, but I would have thought that for most people a walk of up to an hour or a run of 30 minutes or a cycle ride, depending on their level of fitness is appropriate.
“Again, people are displaying common sense, so yesterday I went out for a jog early on, people were maintaining their distance, I was only out for about 25 minutes but people were exercising that degree of discipline.
“Then later in the day I went on a short walk to the local grocery store to get some essentials. Again, in that store people were maintaining strict social distancing and that short walk was just to get the ingredients necessary for weekend cooking. So people have been displaying that degree of discipline and that’s admirable.”
A Cheshire Police spokesperson told HuffPost some of the Warrington incidents related to people from different households meeting up, which the government has advised against.
“On each occasion, officers explained that they were in breach of the new legislation and they were all given the opportunity to engage with officers and comply,” they added.
“However, they refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation and the officers felt they were left with no other option than enforcement. As this is new legislation we are reviewing the circumstances of each case to ensure it was proportionate.
“We would like to stress that enforcement is always a last resort – our aim is always to engage with people, explain why they need to go home and encourage them to follow the guidance.”