Coronavirus: What powers do police have if people break Covid rules?

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By Dominic Casciani
Home affairs correspondent

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.css-14iz86j-BoldText{font-weight:bold;}The police’s role in the coronavirus pandemic is simple: to ensure we follow the new restrictions on our lives.

But in practice, that is a huge challenge for police who are being asked to monitor behaviour that, until March, was perfectly legal.

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How do police enforce Covid rules?

Since March, police chiefs have followed a system called “The Four Es”. Before fines are issued to rule-breakers, police will first:

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  • Engage with people to ask why they appear to be breaking the rules
  • Explain the law, stressing the risks to public health and the NHS
  • Encourage them to change their behaviour
  • Enforce by issuing penalty notices, only as a last resort

Why can you be fined for breaking Covid rules?

The police have a legal duty to make sure the rules are enforced, alongside council environmental health and trading standards officers. And enforcement only works in law if there are fines.

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If you break the new England lockdown rules, you could get a fixed penalty notice (FPN), the Covid equivalent of a parking ticket. Since March, almost 20,000 have been issued.

These now start at £200, rising to £6,400.

Large parties can be shut down by the police – with fines of up to £10,000.

In extreme circumstances, you could be prosecuted and face an even greater fine imposed by a court. Similar rules apply in all parts of the UK.

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Drone footage of revellersimage copyrightWest Midlands Police

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image captionHundreds of people were caught on a drone camera at an illegal party by West Midlands Police

Can police fine me for being in the street?

Yes. During the England lockdown, you must stay at home unless you have a reasonable excuse to be outside. Your home includes any property associated to it – such as a garden or shed – and also access to it.

The lockdown law sets out in full examples of reasonable excuses.

Police won’t fine you for going shopping for essential goods, or to obtain a service from a business that can remain open.

And you’re not breaking the law if you go shopping for someone else in your household, or a vulnerable person.

Will police arrest me for exercising?

No. There was enormous confusion in March over how long people could exercise for – and where – leading to Cabinet Minister Michael Gove pronouncing that he thought half an hour was enough.

There are no restrictions in England on how you exercise and for how long – other than you cannot do it in groups.

So you can run or a wander with someone else from your household or, critically, one person you don’t live with.

Sitting on park benches is definitely NOT banned. But don’t form a gathering if you do because…

Will the police fine me for mingling?

They might. This refers to the ban on “gatherings”.

The last version of the restrictions made it a potential crime to “mingle”. That language has now gone from the law – but the rules are far, far stricter.

You can no longer meet anyone indoors – other than those in your family, support bubble, people you care for, or for other specific purposes, such as an emergency, or to carry out work.

So, the rules ban social visits – but they do leave wriggle room for lots of the necessities of daily life.

Outside, two people can meet – the law can’t really criminalise bumping into someone in the street. Groups larger than that are a no-no for the same social reasons. Again, there are exceptions.

Even if break the rules, how likely am I to be fined?

The Home Office has given the police an extra £30m to pay for specific Covid patrols in England and Wales. Home Secretary Priti Patel met police chiefs on the eve of the new English lockdown – and told them that they now need to “strengthen enforcement” to save lives.

The National Police Chiefs Council hasn’t abandoned the Four Es – but expect more fines and more officers asking people what they are doing.

What about the rest of the UK?

The rules differ across the UK – but all forces follow the general principle of the Four Es.

Police will be expected to continue enforcing new rules:

Police officer in shopping mallimage copyrightGetty Images

Can police make me cover my face?

Yes, and, again, you could face a fixed penalty notice.

In all parts of the UK you must now wear one in shops. You must also wear them when out in a pub, cafe or restaurant when not sitting at your table.

Staff and security guards have no formal powers to enforce the wearing of masks. However, they can stop you from entering or demand that you leave their property.

You must wear a face covering on public transport in all parts of the UK, although some people are exempt. In London, transport officials can issue you with a penalty ticket.

Police on patrol by Brighton pierimage copyrightReuters

Can police check whether I’m isolating?

If you have returned from an overseas Covid hotspot, or have been told by the NHS Test and Trace system to stay at home, you must quarantine for 14 days.

The police can now check the NHS Test and Trace database to investigate a tip-off about a quarantine-breaker. Police won’t get to see your personal health records.

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