The government has been accused of causing “widespread confusion” among police forces by announcing coronavirus rule changes at the 5pm Downing Street press conferences.
Short-notice announcements left police officers “disadvantaged” and open to error, a new report has said.
The 5pm briefings, led by a minister who would often be accompanied by two medical experts, have been a key part of the government's pandemic response – particularly at the beginning of the outbreak in spring last year.
However, a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services about policing during the pandemic last year said police leaders would often find out about rule changes at the same time as members of the public.
Part of the report reads: “Some forces expressed concern that they first heard of certain changes at the 5pm daily televised government briefings.
“In some cases, the changes required immediate implementation and many forces felt disadvantaged by a lack of notice and consultation.”
The report, however, does not mention specific examples of press conferences in which announcements caused confusion.
It goes on to say government announcements and ministers’ statements caused “widespread confusion”.
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“Ministers asserting that their guidance – which had no higher status than requests – were in fact ‘instructions to the British people’ inevitably confused people.
“In some cases, police officers misunderstood the distinction, and appeared to believe that ministerial instructions were equivalent to the criminal law.”
The report added: “To many, the distinction between law and guidance remained uncertain."
As an example, it said the two-metre social distancing “rule” has never been a law, except in, for example, some parts of the hospitality sector such as restaurants.
Similarly, the “stay local” guidance was never a law, and neither was the advice supposedly limiting the amount of times people could go out and exercise to once a day.
On 29 March last year, six days after the first lockdown was imposed, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove even told people to limit their runs to half an hour and walks for an hour during an appearance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.
Throughout the pandemic, there have been a number of occasions where police forces have been forced to apologise over incorrect enforcement of coronavirus regulations, though it can’t be said whether these instances were down to government messaging.
In January, Derbyshire Police said sorry and rescinded £200 fines for two women who met for a walk about five miles from their home.
Later that month, West Midlands Police also apologised for the “unacceptable” behaviour of one of its officers after a man was stopped and threatened with arrest on his way to work.
Speaking at a meeting of the House of Commons justice committee later on Tuesday, Sir Jonathan Jones, former head of the Government Legal Department, also criticised the press conference announcements.
Sir Jonathan, who left his role in November last year, told MPs: “Police need to see the letter of the law. It’s no good them relying purely on a press conference, or on some kind of broad brush description on what the government has in mind.”
He added: “One of the consequences of that has been… that we have seen confusion about what the law actually says.
“We’ve seen inconsistency between different pieces of guidance and we’ve seen different police forces adopt different interpretations and different approaches to enforcement – partly because it’s been sometimes difficult to know what the law is going to say.”
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