A police force has defended using a drone camera to shame people into not driving into a national park during the lockdown, while another force said it was introducing roadblocks to stop drivers heading to tourist hotspots.
This follows a new law that came into effect on Thursday which allows officers to use force to make people return home.
Derbyshire police tweeted drone footage taken near Curbar Edge, in the Peak District, saying the force had checked the numberplates of vehicles in the car park and some cars were registered to addresses in Sheffield, a 30-minute drive away.
The police forces insist members of the public should not be driving anywhere to walk their dogs or exercise. However, the Guardian checked with the Cabinet Office, which is overseeing the new restrictions on movement, and a spokeswoman confirmed that the guidelines do not prohibit driving somewhere for exercise or dog walking.
“Despite posts yesterday highlighting issues of people still visiting the #PeakDistrict despite government guidance, the message is still not getting through. @DerPolDroneUnit have been out at beauty spots across the county, and this footage was captured at #CurbarEdge last night,” the force tweeted.
It added: “Some number plates were coming back to keepers in #Sheffield, so we know that people are travelling to visit these areas. Daily exercise should be taken locally to your home. Under government guidance all travel is limited to essential travel only. Travelling to remote areas of the #PeakDistrict for your exercise is not essential travel. PLEASE, #StayHomeSaveLives.”
What do the restrictions involve?
People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:
- Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
- One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:
- Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
- Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
- Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals
Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.
A spokesman for Derbyshire police insisted there was nothing sinister about the drone deployment.
“It’s not Big Brother. It’s just to illustrate the fact that people are going out and making these journeys against the government’s rules. The rules are clear that people should avoid all non-essential travel and exercise and walk their dogs near their homes. If they drive into the Peaks and have a collision or breakdown or go for a walk and fall over, we’re the ones who will be called, or mountain rescue,” he said.
The drone operator wasn’t hidden, he added: “The pilot was standing next to a liveried police vehicle close to the car park while people were coming in and out.”
Civil liberties groups attacked the sweeping powers given to police on Thursday, including the power to force people home to enforce social distancing, as “authoritarianism and harsh policing” and “chilling”. Police vowed to use them if they have to.
Fines will start at £30, offenders can also be arrested, and police say they will try to persuade people to obey for a lockdown few expect will end in three weeks time.
Clare Collier, Advocacy Director at Liberty said: “We’re extremely concerned by the extent of these coercive powers. This is a pandemic and so it should be treated as a public health issue. Instead the Government is treating it as a criminal justice issue, putting resources into detaining and criminalising.
“What’s concerning is what this heavy-handed approach will do to the public’s relationship with the police in the long-term.
“And while some people will feel reassured by a firmer police response to the pandemic, others will feel fear, especially groups who are already over-policed.”
Silkie Carlo director of Big Brother watch: “These are chilling powers that create a serious risk of arbitrary policing.
“Authorities are right to take robust measures to protect public health, but in truth the only way we can control the spread is through well-informed community co-operation, not just criminalisation. Basic safeguards are missing from these extraordinary powers and I’m afraid more draconian powers still are to come from the Coronavirus Act.”
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, involved in the negotiations with government about the powers, said: “I am confident the overwhelming majority of people already understand the gravity of the situation we face. There will be a small number who do not and we will engage with them, explain to them and encourage them to go home. If they refuse to do the right thing we are fully prepared to use these new powers.”
Under measures announced on Monday by Boris Johnson, members of the public are allowed out of their homes for one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of their household.
The government guidance does not specify how long this exercise can last or how far a distance it can cover. It does not specifically ban driving somewhere to walk a pet or exercise, but makes clear that all non-essential travel should be avoided.
In North Yorkshire, police said they were going to set up checkpoints to determine if drivers’ journeys were essential.
The move is being introduced to ensure motorists are complying with government restrictions, North Yorkshire police said. “Officers will be stopping vehicles and asking motorists where they are going, why they are going there, and reminding them of the message to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives,” the force said in a statement.
The checkpoints will be unannounced and anywhere across the county.
Assistant chief constable Mike Walker said: “The new and significant restrictions ... spell out very clearly what each and every one of us must do to save lives. The message is clear and the warning stark: stay at home, save lives.
“These are the lives of the people we know and love. Our partners, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, grandparents. You may never be in such a position again where your simple actions will lead directly to saving lives.”
Elsewhere, police in west and mid Wales have begun stopping drivers to check their journeys are essential, and are also patrolling public spaces and tourist hotspots.
Dyfed-Powys roads policing inspector Andy Williams said: “More people on the roads means a greater likelihood of vehicles breaking down or being involved in an accident, which puts extra strain on the emergency services. These extra interactions also increase the chances of the virus spreading and putting more people’s lives in danger.”
On Wednesday, North Wales police sent a family of five home after they were caught travelling from Merseyside to Llanfairfechan for a day at the seaside. In a Facebook post, the force’s Conwy coastal unit said: “Officers are out patrolling and it is pleasing to see that most people are sticking to the government advice.”