Coronavirus: Police chief says it is 'very rare' for people to be fined for flouting social distancing

Fines for people breaking social distancing guidelines are “very rare”, according to London’s top police chief.

Speaking on the day that saw a relaxation of some lockdown measures, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said the majority of people in England were adhering to the rules.

She said easing of restrictions – such as allowing people to exercise as much as they like – will make policing “slightly more complicated”.

London's Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick speaking to the media during a walkabout in Croydon, England, Monday March 16, 2020. The vast majority of people recover well from the new COVID-19 coronavirus, although for some it can cause more severe illness, according to the World Health Organization. (Luciana Guerra/ PA via AP)
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said fines for breaking social distancing guidelines were 'very rare'. (AP)

However, she said there had been “incredibly high levels of compliance” up to now, and that it was “very rare” for people to be fined.

Dick said the “major part” of the force’s work would now be “preventing larger gatherings” – but added that police could not enforce restrictions like two-metre distancing or wearing face masks on public transport.

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Police officers in a patrol car move sunbathers on in Greenwich Park, London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Police officers in a patrol car move sunbathers on in Greenwich Park, London. (PA)

As a result, fines could only be issued to people for leaving their homes without a “reasonable excuse”, Dick said.

New guidelines issued by the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council urge officers to only enforce what is written in law.

They state that “government guidance is not enforceable, for example two-metre distancing, avoiding public transport or the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces”.

The advice is set out in a document published on Wednesday after being sent out to forces on Tuesday night.

Published guidance previously issued to forces on how to police the original rules in England did not address whether two-metre social distancing was enforceable.

By contrast, two-metre social distancing "is enforceable" by police officers in Wales, the advice says.

But Welsh councils, not police forces, are responsible for making sure there is social distancing in workplaces, it adds.

Higher fines have now been imposed in England, starting at £100, reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days, and rising to a maximum of £3,200 for subsequent offences.

Human rights campaign group Liberty hit out at the decision to increase fixed penalty notices and claimed confusion caused by unclear messages from the government is a "recipe for injustice”.

The group's advocacy director, Clare Collier, said: "This pandemic is a public health crisis – not a criminal justice issue," describing the latest regulations as a "doubling down on a heavy-handed approach that will undermine public trust and cause lasting harm to people's lives”.

Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said the police service had worked "at pace" to understand the changes and translate them into operational guidance for police officers but that it is "crucial" the public understands them too.

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