Coronavirus: What powers do the police have?

Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists in cars to check that their travel is "essential" Image copyright Getty Images

Boris Johnson has changed the lockdown rules in England, allowing people to spend more time outdoors.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own separate rules for managing the threat of coronavirus - but in each part of the UK, the police must enforce them.

What powers do police have?

Police have wide-ranging powers to help fight coronavirus, by enforcing the lockdown.

The three key tools they have been given are:

  • Detaining someone to be tested if they are believed to be infectious
  • Being able to close a wide range of non-essential businesses
  • Restricting someone's right to move around or be part of a gathering

These powers came into force without a vote in each part of the UK following orders made by ministers.

They could create these regulations without debate because their respective parliament or assembly had earlier given them the power to do so.

How can police enforce the lockdown?

It is against the law in every part of the UK to be outside the place where you live "without reasonable excuse", or to be part of a public gathering.

If someone refuses to follow the regulations - for instance a request to break up a barbecue and go home - officers can give them an on-the-spot penalty - basically an instant fine, like a parking ticket, without the involvement of a court.

In England those penalties now start at £100 for a first offence - reduced to £50 if paid promptly - through to a maximum of £3,200.

They are lower in the rest of the UK.

Police could ultimately charge anyone, anywhere in the UK, with the offence of breaching coronavirus regulations.

That power would lead to court, possible conviction - and therefore a criminal record - and even greater fines.

The police cannot, however, enforce social distancing of two metres because this has not been written into the law.

The latest instructions to officers from the College of Policing for England and Wales says: "Officers should only enforce the Health Protection Regulations - government guidance is not enforceable, for example two-metre distancing, avoiding public transport or the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces."

What is a reasonable excuse to leave home?

If you are stopped, police need to know that you have a "reasonable excuse" to be outside. The law in each part of the UK has never been clear on what this absolutely means. It only gave examples, such as:

  • Shopping for basic necessities
  • Exercise, including with members of the same household
  • Travelling to and from necessary work
  • Providing care to someone who is vulnerable
  • Fleeing harm - such as domestic abuse

The law stresses that if you're on your own property, including a yard, garage or alley which is part of where you live, the police have no power to tell you what to do, unless you're having a gathering that's breaking the lockdown.

How are the rules and advice different across the UK?

In England it is now a reasonable excuse to be outside for recreation or exercise with one other person who doesn't live with you.

So, you could meet a friend or relative for a bike ride, walk or visit to a public park or garden - as long as you stay 2m (6ft) apart at all times - without fear of being questioned by the police.

In Northern Ireland, groups of up to six people who do not share a household will be able to meet outdoors under a relaxation of the law. This rule on meetings outdoors has not been changed in Scotland or Wales.

Mr Johnson also said people in England would now be allowed to drive to other locations to take "more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise".

Confusingly, unlimited exercise was never actually banned in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Wales did initially ban exercising more than once a day before lifting it - and its police are still being asked to ensure people aren't travelling far from home.

Mr Johnson has also said it would be a reasonable excuse to be outside to sunbathe - although there has never been a legal ban on sunbathing in any part of the UK.

It means that police in England will no longer be considering whether to order people to move on if they are snoozing in the sun.

However, the Scottish government maintains that sunbathing could spread the virus, and does not consider it a reasonable excuse to be outside.

So someone basking on the English side of the River Tweed wouldn't be fined by the police - but someone on the opposite Scottish bank might be.

In all parts of the UK, gatherings of more than two people from different households - be they in public or on private land - remain banned.

Can police stop travel from one part of the UK to the other?

This is a moot point. The ban on holidays and staying away from home remains in force - but the prime minister says you can travel.

However, he has no say over how the coronavirus regulations should be enforced by police outside England.

If a family from Bristol drives about 70 miles, within England, for a day's country walking on Exmoor, it is difficult to see how they would now be stopped along the way by Avon and Somerset Police.

But if the same family drives a similar distance to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, they run the risk of arrest.

This is not hypothetical. South Wales Police has already announced that four people from England are to appear in court for travelling to paraglide off Nash Point in Glamorgan.

"Anyone who travels into Wales will be subject to Welsh legislation," said Assistant Chief Constable Andy Valentine. "Travelling into Wales for exercise, or without a reasonable excuse, is not permitted, and I appeal for the support of people living in England."

What advice have police received?

Front-line police may need to work very hard to decide whether someone is wilfully breaking the rules, has a genuine defence or has misunderstood them because of the differences across the UK.

Officers across all four parts of the UK have been told by their chiefs to follow "Four Es":

  • Engage with people - ask them why they are out
  • Explain the law and if necessary set out the reason why they need to be inside, stressing the risks to public health
  • Encourage them to go home if they have no reasonable excuse
  • Enforce only as a last resort

But John Apter, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales - which represents ordinary beat officers - said Mr Johnson's plans could be difficult to enforce.

And Gwent's Police and Crime Commissioner, Jeff Cuthbert, predicted the prime minister's message would cause confusion.