Police chiefs want the government to consider toughening coronavirus lockdown restrictions, the Guardian has learned, as they head into the Easter bank holiday weekend with concerns that a growing minority will flout the rules.
More stringent restrictions to prevent people driving long distances are among options supported by at least five chief constables who want enforcement action to be bolstered by clearer and tougher government curbs. Other options include using legislation to enforce the order to limit exercise to once a day.
Police have sent speed and traffic camera data to the government showing that road use in some areas last weekend was up nearly 10% compared with the previous weekend. Compliance with lockdown restrictions imposed on 23 March is still high, however, with a minority ignoring it to take walks or exercise their dogs far from home, sometimes in groups.
It comes as forces created online forms for the public to report potential lockdown breaches. One announcement of the new system, from Cambridgeshire police, met with a backlash online.
“I cannot express strongly enough how thoroughly revolting this is,” said one reply with over 100 likes, while another read “They just don’t realise, the only thing they are doing is turning the law-abiding public against them.”
Others welcomed the move.
The Metropolitan police and forces including Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Avon and Somerset and Kent all offered a similar online service. Cambridgeshire police said: “Like other forces, we’re urging people to use common sense. Please only [use] our online form if there is a significant issue or breach. This may be a large gathering or group of people repeatedly ignoring the restrictions.”
With warm weather expected over the long weekend, police are planning to step up the scouring of Britain’s parks, beaches, streets and tourist spots.
Julia Mulligan, police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire, whose force erected vehicle checkpoints at the start of the lockdown, said: “If people don’t stick with the instructions then they [the government] may well have to consider additional measures.
“Obviously there is concern. There are plans in place. People should see a lot of yellow vests [officers in high-visibility jackets] on the roads this weekend. There will be a lot of activity on the roads, stopping vehicles.”
She added: “There is a lot of preparation to get the message out to people not to visit beauty spots and we have had complaints from farmers who are seeing 20 cars in their lanes and people going walking.”
A government reexamination of lockdown powers in England is considering tougher restrictions, like those already in force in Wales. These include restricting exercise to once a day and a stronger duty on public authorities to ensure open spaces, such as parks and other open-air attractions, do not get crowded.
One source said the fact it was already in operation in one part of the UK would make its introduction into England more palatable. It was also possible the lockdown could be left as it is.
One police leader said that several forces covering partly rural areas believed the government should consider going further and place further restrictions on people justifying their driving by claiming it was to exercise.
“We need to say you can’t drive. The burden needs to be on the individual not the state to prove reasonableness,” the police chief said. “If the test changes, a lot less people would think: ‘Rover does not need to be driven to a national park today.’”
In some areas, the unregulated holiday lets sector, including Airbnb, continues to hire out properties. “There are still people coming down,” said one senior police officer in a popular holiday area. “People are still driving for a long time under the excuse of exercise and to places they do not need to be. The Easter bank holiday is one of the busiest times of the year. I have no new powers for this weekend. There is a significant risk this weekend of people breaking the lockdown.”
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, suggested further tightening may follow: “The Met Police will be busy patrolling parks and open spaces across London this weekend – urging Londoners to do the right thing and follow the rules. I desperately want us to be able to keep our green spaces open for the millions of people that need them for essential walks and exercise – but that means everyone doing the right thing.”
Some London parks closed at the weekend, and police said on Wednesday that 30 people ran from officers after being found playing a cricket match in Kensal Green, north London.
We need to say you can’t drive. The burden needs to be on the individual not the state to prove reasonablenessPolice chief
Last weekend, Cumbria reported people travelling long distances, and on Tuesday in Cornwall about 30 surfers were seen on one beach. Malham Cove, in North Yorkshire, had visitors from Oldham, Bradford and Leeds at the weekend, Mulligan said.
Police in Suffolk issued 178 warnings on Saturday and Sunday after receiving 119 calls from members of the public reporting people ignoring the restrictions.
The county’s assistant chief constable, David Cutler, said those flouting the ban had been condemned on social media.
“In a few days’ time it will be the Easter weekend. I hope the negative comments on social media following the last two days, and the number of heart-wrenching testimonies from doctors and nurses treating those suffering from this virus, will cause these individuals to take a long, hard look at their behaviour and consider the danger they are potentially exposing themselves, their families, the public and NHS workers to.”
Downing Street also moved to quash reports that schools could be set to reopen after the Easter holidays.
Ministers have been carrying out what officials insist is a “nuanced” discussion of the costs and benefits of the lockdown measures, which appear to be flattening the curve of new Covid-19 infections, but have led to mass layoffs across the economy.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said on Wednesday: “This will have a significant impact on our economy, and not in an abstract way: it will affect people’s and livelihoods.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is understood to have raised the impact of an extended lockdown on child vaccination rates and patients whose elective operations have been cancelled.