Police do not have the capacity to launch “manhunts” for people who violate coronavirus rules by refusing to self-isolate, a senior officer has said.
Figures released on Wednesday suggest that hundreds of people are getting away with breaking the law by giving false details or not answering the door to police.
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), told a virtual press conference that crime levels had risen back to pre-pandemic levels in England and Wales.
“There is a real pressure on the police services at the moment,” he said.
“We have demand pretty much back to where we were before the outbreak in March. That is placing the normal demands on the service and over and above that we are playing our role in the coronavirus response.”
Mr Hewitt said the NPCC had asked the government for extra funding for coronavirus patrols.
As well as the recent “rule of six” restrictions and numerous local lockdowns, another new law came into force this week making it illegal to refuse an official instruction to self-isolate in England.
A separate law already made it an offence to violate self-isolation requirements after returning from selected countries and areas.
If public health authorities suspect someone is not complying, they can refer cases to police but officers have no power to enter people’s homes.
Of the 4,114 referrals made to police by 22 September, 3,216 people were found to be complying.
Another 218 people were found to be breaching regulations but were not fined after being “encouraged to self-isolate”, and only 38 fines had been issued.
In 440 cases, police received no answer when attending properties and could take no enforcement action, and in another 240 officers found that “nobody with the relevant name lived at that address”.
Mr Hewitt said details were given to Border Force officials at ports and if the names do not match, the “only assumption you can make is that those details weren’t provided accurately or weren’t recorded accurately”.
“Is that a foolproof system that stops anyone avoiding it? No it isn’t,” he added.
Asked whether people were “getting away with it” by being out or avoiding police when they knocked at the door, he said: “There is not the capacity to be getting into a manhunt scenario looking for people. People have got to accept responsibility.”
If police are unable to get an answer following a visit, follow-ups are suggested and if they fail the information is fed back to the Border Force.
Around half of more than 18,900 fines issued for breaking the Health Protection Regulations, which enforced the UK-wide lockdown and have since been changed to restrict gatherings, have not been paid.
As of 22 September, 9,413 people were being considered for prosecution and could add substantially to the backlog of more than half a million court cases in England and Wales.
There is no way to appeal other than refusing to pay and Mr Hewitt would not comment on calls by parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights for processes to be changed.
Figures show that the vast majority of fines were issued during the strictest lockdown and only 151 fines were issued across England and Wales in the past month, including in areas subject to localised restrictions.
Only 15 penalties had been handed out for breaking the “rule of six” by 22 September but Mr Hewitt said the figure was expected to rise, while 18 people have been fined £10,000 for holding large gatherings including music events, protests and parties.
Fewer than 100 fines have been given to people refusing to wear face masks by police, mostly on public transport.
“Coronavirus is something we have all had to rapidly adapt to, and officers have had to pick up new regulations at a record pace, and apply them across the population,” Mr Hewitt said. “The number of instances where enforcement action is necessary at all is a fraction of the total engagement we have had with the public.
“We expect to see a rise in the number of fines issued now that more regulations have come into effect … the country is at a critical point and personal choices will matter during the weeks and months to come.”
Some police forces have seen an increase in 101 calls since the “rule of six” came into force on 14 September, Mr Hewitt said, “reflecting people ringing to offer intelligence around potential breaches of regulations”.
But overall calls to 101 are still lower than the same period last year, while 999 calls are returning to normal numbers.
Statistics show crime levels rising back to pre-pandemic levels, with overall offences standing at 3 per cent lower than the same period last year.
Residential burglary, vehicle crime and shoplifting are still significantly lower, which police suspect is mainly due to a lack of opportunity as more people are working from home.
Recorded rape has risen by 4 per cent year-on-year and domestic abuse by 7 per cent.
Assaults on emergency workers have risen by almost a third but Mr Hewitt said most were “assaults without injury”, including coughing and spitting.