As people across Britain adjust to life under lockdown, some police officers and local officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to enforce new restrictions by banning Easter eggs, using drones to shame people and dyeing a popular swimming hole to keep out tourists.
In Derbyshire in northern England, police used a drone to snap photos of dog walkers in a park and then posted the pictures on Twitter with the comment: “These are all lovely things to do but not in the middle of a pandemic that is literally costing people their lives.” Police in Buxton, south of Manchester, put black dye in a quarry known as “the blue lagoon” to deter swimmers while officers elsewhere stopped cars and examined shopping bags. In Warrington, outside Liverpool, the police fined a group of family members for “going to the shops for non-essential items.”
The overly aggressive enforcement has sparked a flurry of complaints and led a retired Supreme Court judge to warn that Britain was becoming a “police state."
“The behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people in using their undoubted right to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the fells so people don’t want to go there is frankly disgraceful,” retired judge Jonathan Sumption told the BBC this week. "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.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the country into a near total lockdown last week to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus. The measures included closing all non-essential shops, banning public gatherings of more than two people and ordering nearly everyone to stay at home except to shop for groceries, exercise or attend medical appointments. Only people involved in essential services were exempt.
The government gave police additional powers to enforce the restrictions and set fines ranging from £60, or $106, to £960 for offenders. Police could also force infected individuals into isolation and disperse gatherings of as little as three people.
But the measures lacked clarity and many people were left wondering which restrictions were legally enforceable and which were simply government advice. Local police forces were also in a quandary and while some officers adopted a low-key approach toward enforcement, others went much farther.
In one extreme case, local environment officers told some convenience store owners to stop selling Easter eggs because they were “non-essential.” That drew a sharp rebuke from the Association of Convenience Stores which said the regulations permitted corner stores to remain open and made no mention of what they could sell. “This is complete nonsense,” James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores said on Twitter. “I can’t get my head round the mentality of going into a shop and making up rules that don’t exist and enforcing them.”
The government has acknowledged that the police need to use more common sense in applying the measures, but several cabinet ministers defended the officers’ objectives. “Let’s also bear in mind the number one message which the police are rightly trying to convey is that people need to follow the guidance, not just to the letter but also to the spirit,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said during a government briefing on the virus this week.
Several police chiefs also rejected suggestions of a “police state” and said officers were simply trying to protect people. The public was “looking for support from the police all last week,” Dave Thompson, head of the West Midlands Police in Birmingham, said in a statement. “They are calling us re: breaches of advice that are not within the law.”
On Tuesday, the National Police Chiefs’ Association issued a notice to all police forces calling on them to use greater consistency in applying the rules. “Officers will stress the risks to public health and to the [National Health Service],” said the guidance which stressed education over enforcement.
At least one police force in South Wales found the spot checks fruitful. When officers pulled over a car this week and asked the driver where he was going, he replied: “My journey is essential. I had to buy weed.” The man was arrested for a “non essential journey and possession of cannabis.”
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