New police tools that encourage the public to report people they suspect of breaching coronavirus restrictions risk fuelling “social mistrust and division”, a barrister has warned, as the majority of the UK’s forces adopt the scheme.
Twenty-six of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have launched dedicated online forms allowing people to report suspected breaches of the lockdown, such as large gatherings in parks.
The Metropolitan police, the UK’s biggest police force, are among those to have adopted the scheme, which asks the public to report people who “appear to be or are contravening the government advice on physical distancing and the stay at home measures” by entering a location and reporting the potential breach.
It has prompted debate about whether it is appropriate to ask for the public to report others to police when there remains confusion about what the regulations prohibit.
I really don’t like this:— Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) April 8, 2020
1. Public have a sketchy understanding of what the regulations prohibit.
2. Almost no breaches can be ‘seen’. Require questioning on reasonable excuse or non-household gathering
3. Encourages social mistrust and division rather than empathy / good faith https://t.co/efPJJ5JZyv
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister, said he was opposed to the move as it “encourages social mistrust and division rather than empathy/good faith”. He said the public had a “sketchy understanding” of the regulations and that the vast majority of breaches required police questioning in order for them to be established – they could not simply be “seen”, he said.
Wagner added: “I think the police are quite confused about what exactly their role is during this pandemic. I would prefer if they saw it as identifying obvious breaches of the legal regulations which define their powers and not acting as guardians of the government guidance.”
Meanwhile, the public law barrister Francis Hoar, said the new forms could be used to “settle scores” between neighbours.
He added: “Not only will this encourage a huge number of complaints by people who believe that the regulations are more restrictive than they are (particularly as the police have promoted that perception) it is a troubling invitation to neighbours to settle scores wholly alien to the limited citizen policing that is the tradition in this country.
“Police officers have a duty to enforce the law fairly and proportionately, not to encourage suspicion and division.”
Greater Manchester police, one of the forces using the new scheme, said on Thursday it had broken up 660 parties last weekend – some with DJs, fireworks and bouncy castles – as it warned people to stay home over Easter.
Police have the power to issue fines up to £1,000 to those who breach the Coronavirus Act 2020 by failing “without reasonable excuse” to observe the lockdown by, for example, gathering in groups or travelling long distances for exercise.
Nick Adderley, the chief constable of Northamptonshire police, one of the forces to launch the online form, said the vast majority of people were abiding by the advice to stay at home but that “too many” were not.
Adderley said forces could use antisocial behaviour or public order laws to arrest people if they refused to comply with the coronavirus restrictions.
“We’ve got to get really serious. People are dying every day. We’re seeing consultants and doctors and nurses dying and sacrificing their lives to protect us. It’s only right we ask the public to play their part.
“In the main they are but there are a hardcore of people who, if they refuse, will be issued with that ticket if they refuse to move on or go home ... but there are other powers which could mean that those individuals will be arrested,” he told Sky News on Thursday.