Accompanying the unprecedented UK-wide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 23 March 2020, greater powers have been awarded to the UK’s police force. These powers allow them to enforce limitations on the public’s movement and interaction.
As a result, public gatherings will be dispersed, fines will be issued if individuals don’t comply, and arrests will be made. These are some of the most draconian measures put in place by the UK government in modern times and many have said that the police have already ‘overstepped the mark’.
Criticisms have been made that the police are wielding these new powers without consistency and acting in an ‘overzealous’ manner. Others have raised concerns that these new powers could turn the UK into a ‘police state’.
On 26 March 2020, the government published new public health regulations outlining the strengthened powers awarded to the police.
Now, if individuals fail to comply with the government’s measures on public gatherings, police can instruct individuals to leave an area and return home. They will also be permitted to use ‘reasonable force’ as a ‘last resort’.
Fines will also be issued if individuals then fail to comply with these instructions. This starts with a fixed penalty of £60, which will be reduced by half if paid in 14 days. Repeat offenders will be hit with a fixed penalty of £120, which will double each time the person reoffends.
The regulations also outline that police have the power to make sure parents ‘are taking necessary steps’ to ensure their children also comply with the rules.
Further to this, if individuals refuse to pay the fines, they will be taken to court, where they will be potentially subjected to unlimited fines. The new regulations also outline that the police have the power to arrest individuals who they perceive to not be complying with the rules.
If these powers sound vague, it’s because they are.
Speaking about the new changes Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The Prime Minister has been clear on what we need to do: stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives. All our frontline services really are the best of us and are doing an incredible job to stop this terrible virus from spreading.That’s why I’m giving the police these new enforcement powers, to protect the public and keep people safe.”
Chief Constable Simon Byrne added that the police would only: “Enforce where necessary when people do not listen and put others at risk.”
The police have said that these tough new powers will only be used when ‘absolutely necessary’. However, many are concerned by the actions already taken by police since the powers were announced.
There are countless examples of police across the UK abusing their power, and subjecting the public to harsh authoritarian rule.
The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) has reported that local authorities and police have told retailers that there are restrictions on selling certain products such as Easter eggs. This is not true.
Meanwhile, Derbyshire Police deployed drones across Peak District National Park to monitor people’s movement and then posted the drone footage of people walking in the countryside on social media, publicly shaming them.
On Twitter, civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said: “Drones are an unnecessarily sinister way of communicating public health advice. It must stop”.
Lord Sumpton, former Senior Judge, agreed calling these actions ‘disgraceful’. He went on to add that although ministers have said that they prefer people not to travel by car for their exercise, this was not regulation. As such, he outlined that police have no power to enforce ministers’ ‘preferences’.
Lord Sumption continued: “The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform, they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command”.
The police force also dyed Buxton ‘Blue Lagoon’ black in what they said was an effort to deter congregation.
The actions of Warrington Police have similarly been criticised after police summoned six people to court for a range of ludicrous reasons. These included individuals ‘driving out of boredom’ and ‘multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items’.
Additional reports of over-enforcement come from Lancashire Police who have issued a total of 123 enforcement notices since Thursday 26 March.
The new regulations also award the police arbitrary detention powers, to detain ‘potentially infectious’ individuals. However, how do the authorities determine which people are infectious?
Speaking on the unsettling new regulations Lord Sumption said: “This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes … there is a natural tendency, of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniform into glorified school prefects.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has admitted that the police are currently experiencing what he called ‘teething problems’ with the new powers. He went on to claim that ultimately, the police were “trying to work out which is the most effective approach.”
However, seemingly because of the outlandish behaviour acted out by some territorial police forces, police chiefs are currently in the process of establishing further guidelines.
According to The Guardian, both the National Police Chief Council (NPCC) and College of Policing are ‘rushing through guidance’ which will instruct police officers to not infringe on citizen’s rights.
However, while the Transport Secretary said the abuse of power is limited to “individual examples,” noting that police acted “perhaps a bit further than they should have gone” this is arguably a significant understatement. The actions of UK police in the last week show a disturbing glimpse into a dystopian reality.
Millions are currently subjected to a kind of ‘house arrest’ while blanket powers awarded to the police are being abused.This signifies an unnerving loss of liberty.
Many have raised concerns that these draconian powers are here to stay. Once we beat the virus, will the government simply dial back?
Considering the new laws can extend up to two years, surely it would be important to safeguard the right to political assembly? If these regulations endure for up to six months, for example, citizens should have the right to question these laws and protest against the government. Under these new powers, this could land you in prison.
Safeguarding mechanisms for this kind of situation also already exist.The Civil Contingencies Act, would have allowed the government to outline regulations suitable for the current circumstances. These regulations would have to be reviewed within 7 days, and last only up to 30 days – not two years.
What is more unsettling is that when Conservative back-benchers asked Jacob Rees-Mogg why the act was not used, he said that it simply did not apply to COVID-19, because it was not classified as an emergency. When the Speakers Council was asked if this was true, they stated it was not. The powers under the act apply to scenarios such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and were indeed appropriate.
Police have been told to use both ‘common sense’ and ‘empathy’ when implementing these new regulations, however can they really be trusted to do this? Let us not be naive to think that police will not act reactively in such a highly stressful and uncertain situation. More safeguarding is required to ensure that the UK does not descend into a dystopian police state, and the liberty of UK citizens is not infringed upon further. These police powers must be scaled back significantly.