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Police to get power to use force to impose coronavirus lockdown

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Vikram Dodd and Helen Pidd
a group of people playing frisbee in a park: Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Police will be authorised to use force to send people back home if they refuse to obey the coronavirus lockdown, under government plans.

Ministers will issue fuller details by Thursday of how police will enforce the lockdown ordered by the prime minister on Monday, aimed at stopping the spread of the virus by keeping people apart.

The Guardian has learned that, under plans being discussed by ministers and senior officials, officers would first encourage and cajole people to go back indoors if they suspect them of being out of their home in breach of the ban. If that and the issuing of a fine failed, reasonable force could be used as a last resort.

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Exemptions are expected to be built in for those fleeing domestic violence, for religious ministers tending to their duties, separated parents seeing their children, homeless people, and those complying with bail conditions. No exemption is planned for people who live separately from their partner or the person they are dating. 

Justifications for being outside, already announced by Boris Johnson, include exercising once a day, buying essentials such as food and medicine, caring duties and going to work if it is not possible to work from home. Gatherings of more than two people are banned.

Fines under a fixed penalty notice will start at £30 and if paid will not lead to a criminal record. If someone refuses to pay, they can be prosecuted at a magistrates court. Delays in paying and further breaches will lead to escalating fines.

Under the plans, if an officer on patrol sees someone out of their home and believe they are breaching the lockdown, they start a “four-step plan”, according to multiple sources.

The officer will engage: that is, ask the person why they are out. Then they are to explain why the ban is needed to stop the virus spreading and save lives. Then they will encourage the person to return home. This could include suggesting the best route home.

After these steps, an officer can issue a fine and if the person still refuses to comply, police will be authorised to use “reasonable force” to take someone home.

During the first two days of lockdown, police say few people have been out in defiance of the ban or gathering in groups of more than two. Those challenged by officers have complied.

People will have 14 days to pay a fine. Children under 18 will be taken back home to their parents or guardians. It is not clear if adults will be expected to pay fines for children they are responsible for.

Before details of the penalties emerged, a police leader warned of a potential shift in relations between police and communities.

Stephen White, the acting police and crime commissioner for Durham, said relations with communities could be strained and that policing was based on consent and a presumption of innocence. “We don’t want to have a society when you step out the door there is a cop saying: ‘Where are you going?’”

White, a former leader of rank-and-file officers when he was chair of the Police Federation, and a former police marksman, said: “Are we going to assume innocence or guilt? … What are the grounds, reasonable belief or evidence to dish out a fine? What are the checks and balances on police officers using these draconian powers going to be? … It’s going to be a minefield.”

Police will face potential sensitive situations if the lockdown is still in place when the Muslim holy period of Ramadan starts around 23 April. Usually worshippers visit mosques after dark.

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Refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution also may be concerned about giving an authority figure their name and address.

Andy Cooke, the chief constable of Merseyside police, speaking before details emerged, said police leaders were keen to see the details of government plans. He said any enforcement would be rare. “You rely on goodwill but there might be a small bunch of idiots who have to have enforcement used against them.”

Cooke returned to work on Wednesday after testing positive for Covid-19.

The rules and powers apply to England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland expected to enact similar measures.

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Stay at home to stop coronavirus spreading - here is what you can and can't do. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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