Police acknowledge confusion over UK lockdown rules

Vikram Dodd and Helen Pidd
Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

A police chief has admitted there is confusion around the government’s lockdown rules, even as forces vow to deter people from visiting beauty spots and beaches this weekend.

Police said the Lake District was closed, and officers across Britain were patrolling to stop gatherings of more than two people.

One police chief in south-west England admitted to the Guardian that his force had made mistakes in setting up a road block, as constabularies across the UK attempted to convince people to stay at home with sunshine forecast for the first weekend of the lockdown.

Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, who negotiated the terms of the lockdown with the government, declared: “This is a national emergency. It is not a national holiday.”

Officers were trying to interpret rules that became law on Thursday, with new guidance issued overnight. People are confined to their home except to exercise, buy essentials and go to work where necessary.

On Thursday there was concern about checkpoints in North Yorkshire and Devon, among others, and Derbyshire police were “drone shaming” people in an isolated beauty spot, saying their drive to the Peak District was not essential and therefore broke the lockdown.

Hewitt said: “The point here is to try to avoid people contaminating other people. We need people to adjust their behaviour. There is absolutely no intention to be heavy handed. I accept an image of one person in an open space is fine but if we end up tomorrow with dozens of people going to open spaces, we won’t keep that separation.”

The deputy chief constable of Hampshire police, Sara Glen, said she accepted there had been public confusion and that fresh, clearer guidance was being sent to officers.

“The message that has gone out is almost like you can’t go outside and exercise and walk your dog. That is wrong. I fully understand the concerns around the initial brief that came out,” she said.

Some of the largest difficulties for police so far have come not in urban areas but less densely populated areas. On Friday, Cumbria police declared the Lake District closed in an attempt to deter crowds.

“Thinking of coming to the #Lakedistrict over the weekend? Don’t, it’s CLOSED. Daily exercise shouldn’t include travelling to a different area by car. Start your walk, cycle or run from your home in your local area,” the force tweeted.

Shaun Sawyer, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, told the Guardian that closing roads on Thursday around Exeter had been a mistake. He said his main priority, other than responding to 999 emergencies this weekend, would be to police the lockdown.

Sawyer said: “Why does your dog need to get into a car to go for a walk? Your dog does not need to be driven to Dartmoor.”

He said some people in his area saw coronavirus as a “London thing”, but it was spreading. People in Devon and Cornwall would see more officers around the beaches to prevent crowds.

Sawyer said of the lockdown: “It is confusing, it is frustrating. It’s like you have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives. I do not want to police that way. If I do, I’d rather it was short, sharp and fair and worth it. I will have extra officers around the beaches and the rural areas this weekend.”

He added: “I am concerned if we don’t land this correctly it affects relationships with the public in the future. I won’t be OK if the public go against this.”

The pace of change was causing extra work for police, he said. “Our busiest time is calls to 101 after an announcement. People are confused and want to know what it means to them.”

Nationally, some fines had already been issued for breaking the lockdown, but Hewitt said the police were not just doing the government’s bidding and had not compromised their independence by implementing draconian powers. “We are not an arm of the state,” he said.

Police said they wanted to avoid fines and arrests and would aim to persuade people to comply.

The government’s updated guidance on Friday said: “Stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible. Do not travel unnecessarily,” stopping short of banning driving for these purposes.

“If you have a garden, make use of the space for exercise and fresh air,” it added. “Gatherings of more than two in parks or other public spaces have been banned and the police will enforce this.”

Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, said on Friday that family groups could travel together in cars for short distances to exercise, but again reiterated the guidance to stay as close to home as possible.

Police forces and local councils have been interpreting the official guidance in their own ways since Boris Johnson announced the lockdown on Monday. In Wales, Neath Port Talbot council posted a video on Facebook showing a drone flying around the town centre broadcasting a recorded message telling people to stay home.