Coronavirus lockdown: What should you do if stopped by police while out driving, shopping or exercising?

Richard Williams, news reporter

The introduction of new legislation which the government says is designed to help UK authorities combat the spread of coronavirus has generated confusion and controversy in equal measure.

Criticism from some quarters has followed reports of police summoning people to court for driving "due to boredom" or "going to the shops" with other members of the same household.

Officers' use of drones to monitor people walking in public and roadblocks blocking access to popular tourist attractions has also been a source of debate.

Speaking to Sky News' Kay Burley @ Breakfast Show, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted there were "individual examples" where police acted "perhaps a bit further than they should have gone".

But while there is widespread acknowledgement of isolated instances in which officers may have overreached their authority, the divergence between guidelines issued by the government and subsequent legislation - under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 - appears to have driven much of the uncertainty, among the public and police.

The government guidelines state people can only go out to buy essential supplies infrequently such as food and medicine, to do one form of exercise a day, to travel to work if they cannot work from home, and for any medical need, including to donate blood or provide help to a vulnerable person.

The legislation says people are permitted to go out for essential journeys and with a "reasonable excuse", then lists examples of what those can "include".

However, the legislation conspicuously does not indicate these are the only acceptable explanations.

"So if you are a police officer and someone says they believe they are justified in being out, what do you do?" said Sky's policing analyst Graham Wettone, who spent 30 years as an officer.

What are your rights if you are stopped by police while out driving, shopping or exercising?

"My main advice to anyone is to follow the government guidelines, which will avoid most of the problems we have seen so far. It's just about being sensible," Mr Wettone said.

"Police already have the powers to stop anyone driving a vehicle without justification and are allowed to ask why you are out.

"Officers are also within their rights to question people out in public, whether they are out exercising or going to a shop.

"But this is where the guidelines and legislation are unclear, because as a member of the public in all these situations, there is no legal requirement to provide an explanation.

"So without common sense on both sides, this is where it can become an argument."

How can the new laws be enforced and can police issue a court summons under the new powers?

The legislation is clear that fixed penalty notices can be issued by officers, ranging from £30 for first offences, doubling with each subsequent offence up to £960.

As for court summonses, despite Warrington Police saying "six people have been summonsed for offences relating to the new coronavirus legislation", the answer would appear to be no.

"To my understanding, police cannot issue court summons to people with this legislation," Mr Wettone said.

"Officers have the power to issue fixed penalty notices and if a person refuses to pay the fine, they can then be summoned to court. If someone is issued with a summons under this legislation, they should raise it with the force in question."

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and College of Policing are thought to be working on urgent guidance clarifying the emergency powers available to police and The Guardian reported officers would be told they cannot prevent people from going for a run - even if they are exercising more than once a day - or going for a drive.

Mr Wettone said he believed many of the problems were the result of the current inconsistencies in the official instructions.

"The differences between the government guidelines and the legislation have created some real grey areas, which is deeply unhelpful for both the police and members of the public," he said.

"The legislation has literally been rushed through. Normally new laws would have been through both houses of parliament and been scrutinised for any likely practical problems in select committees.

"The nature of the situation means none of that has happened here, which has left police officers trying to smash a square peg into a round hole.

"For example, while the government guidelines state people are allowed to leave their home for one piece of exercise a day, that is not in the legislation, so it's simply not enforceable.

"The problem comes with those grey areas. Police have a fair amount of discretion, even in normal times."

He argued that while individual officers' actions may have contributed to a small number of high-profile incidents, any suggestion the UK was becoming a "police state" were wide of the mark.

"In every organisation, you are going to get pedantic people - for want of a better word, jobsworths," he said.

"We have some of those in policing.

"In some of the incidents that have been highlighted in the news over recent weeks, you can make the case that a quiet word and a request that the person move on would have been enough.

"But you will often find that those people most likely to challenge officers and say 'I know my rights' when they are stopped in public, are also those most likely to speak out on social media afterwards.

"I've heard people suggesting that we're now living in a 'police state', but we're nowhere near other European countries like France, where you have to fill in a form if you want to go out and they have issued huge numbers of fines to people."

Merseyside Police Chief Constable Andy Cooke responded to criticism of some forces, telling Sky News the "vast majority" of officers and members of the public were acting appropriately under the circumstances.

"This isn't a matter over over-enforcing," he said.

"This is about police looking after our communities. Yes, we will make mistakes, yes there will be some minor problems, but overall, a fantastic job is being done."