There has been much confusion over what is, and what is not, permitted under the present coronavirus lockdown rules. The police have come under some criticism for their approach to the enforcement of the rules. The position is changing as the Pandemic continues and the following is the position as of the 20th April 2020. It is sensible to make sure that you check the current guidance and Government advice if you have any uncertainty about what you can and cannot do.
The Coronavirus Act
Under the Coronavirus Act, it is illegal to fail to comply with the instructions of police officers without ‘reasonable excuse’.
What are the police powers?
The police have wide-ranging powers to help fight coronavirus, by enforcing social distancing measures designed to keep people apart.
The three key tools they have been given are:
- The power to detain someone to be tested if they are believed to be infectious
- The power to close a wide range of non-essential businesses
- The power to restrict your right to move around and be part of a gathering
There has been significant concern about how the police are interpreting and applying their powers under the Act. Some have criticised them for not using common sense. In one recent case, a woman was arrested for marking the pavement outside her shop to ensure social distancing. The officer dealing with the case referred to it as ‘criminal damage’ of the pavement. That is utterly absurd. I would have thought that this lady had a pretty good defence and I sincerely hope she refused to accept the fixed penalty notice given to her.
Guidance versus the law
The government guidance permits exercise, away from home once a day. It is not unlawful to exercise twice, three times or more away from home.
The public should know that there is a very big difference between what the government would like people to do – the ‘guidance’ – and what is now considered potentially unlawful under the Coronavirus Act. For example, driving to a wood five miles away to take your family for a walk is perhaps against Government advice, but not subject to any legal sanction under the Act.
If anyone reading this article has been given a fixed penalty notice in supposed breach of the Coronavirus Act, they are strongly advised to get in touch with us.
What punishments can police enforce?
A police officer can order a non-essential business to close while coronavirus lockdown rules are in place.
Police can also enforce the two key social distancing rules, which ban:
- Leaving the place where you live “without reasonable excuse”
- Being in a public gathering of more than two people
If someone refuses to follow the regulations – for instance a request to go home – officers can give them an on-the-spot fine of £60, reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days. If they keep breaking the law, more fines can be given – up to a maximum of £960. To date over 3,000 fines have been handed out by the police in respect of a breach of the coronavirus lockdown rules. I highly suspect that many of those can be challenged.
The Police can also charge for any apparent breaches of the Act, which can result in a conviction.
What is a reasonable excuse to leave home?
A ‘reasonable excuse’ which would avoid a fine includes:
- Going shopping for ‘basic necessities.’ This would include food, medicine and items essential for the home
- Exercise, including with family members
- Travelling to and from work, if ‘absolutely necessary’
Additionally, if an individual is out helping someone with their care, or something associated with their care, the policer can take no action.
Ultimately, what is considered a ‘reasonable excuse’ will depend on all the circumstances, and a level of common sense from the police. In fact, the police are being encouraged to engage with people – ask them why they are out; explain the law to individuals to help them understand; stress the need to be inside to protect lives and the NHS; encourage individuals to go home if they have no reasonable excuse – and to enforce the law only as a last resort.
There are likely to be cases where the police do enforce and where the courts are asked to determine the issue.
The law and the self-employed
If it is not possible to work from home, then you have a reasonable excuse. The unfortunate thing about that is that if you’re questioned by a police officer about that, it may be the officer who decides if your work can be done from home or not. If you find yourself in this position, you must call for some advice.
If you are affected by this article, please call me, David Wells, Senior Partner, Criminal Law Specialist, Wells Burcombe Solicitors on 07939026751, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org