'Overzealous' police use coronavirus powers to charge shoppers for buying 'non-essential items'

Gareth Davies
Police officers from North Yorkshire Police stop motorists in cars to check that their travel is 'essential' - Oli Scarff/AFP

A number of police forces have been accused of being overzealous in their approach to the new powers to enforce the coronavirus lockdown rules. 

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said her approach is to "help educate and encourage" the public to comply with the tightest restrictions seen in peacetime in the UK, insisting fines and charges should only be used as a last resort.

Her comments came after a number of forces were accused of being overstepping in their approach to the new rules.

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Police in Lancashire issued 123 fines over the weekend for breaking the new rules, while officers in Cleveland issued 16, mainly for drivers making unnecessary journeys.

North of the border, Police Scotland issued 25 fixed penalty notices over the weekend to people flouting the regulations introduced in a bid to stop people from spreading coronavirus in public places.

Officers in Warrington summonsed six people for various offences, including someone who went out for a drive because they were bored, and multiple people from the same house going out to buy "non-essential" items.

And convenience stores have been "wrongly" told to stop selling Easter eggs amid the coronavirus pandemic as they are considered non-essential goods.

Dozens of people, including those considered vulnerable by the Government guidelines, accused the police of being overzealous with their approach..

This was echoed by former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Anderson said: "Police in their words and actions need to be clear about the difference between rules and guidance, both to maintain public confidence in their role and to discourage snoopers, snitches and vigilantes.

"Serious breaches should attract fines, but news reports of over-enforcement by police and public are deterring the timid from exercising even the limited freedoms they have."

Last week Derbyshire Police shamed those travelling to beauty spots for their one piece of daily exercise. The video can be watched below.

He said that Ms Dick had "set the right tone" with her emphasis on explaining the new rules to members of the public.

Cressida Dick: 'In the first instance I want my officers to be engaging with people'

 "We are all getting used to the new restrictions and I've been very clear that in the first instance I want my officers to be engaging with people, talking to people, encouraging them to comply.

"Explaining, of course, if they don't understand - already we have had examples of people who simply hadn't quite heard all the messages - and, only as a very last resort with the current restrictions, using firm direction or even enforcement."

She said her officers have "gently" cleared gatherings of people when discovered and are not routinely stopping drivers.

"We're not doing what you might call road blocks or anything like that," she said. "Yes, we stop motorists sometimes, we have a conversation with them.

"They might have a light out, we might talk to them, we might ask them about their journey. Our approach is one entirely trying to help educate and encourage people.

"I think we're all trying to get used to this. My approach in my service is one entirely of trying to encourage people, to engage with people, to have conversations with people."

Downing Street: Officers should use their own discretion

Downing Street said police officers should use "their own discretion" in enforcing the coronavirus lockdown measures.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The police will exercise their own discretion in the use of the powers which we have given to them and will take whatever steps they consider appropriate to disperse groups of people who are flouting the rules."

Asked whether shops could continue to sell non-essential items, the spokesman said: "We have set out which shops can remain open. If a shop is allowed to remain open, then it will of course sell whatever items it has in stock."

In response to some forces moving people on in parks, the spokesman was asked whether it was permissible to "take a breather" on a bench during daily exercise.

The spokesman said: "The rules set out what you need to do, there shouldn't be any gatherings of more than two people from outside any individual household and that people need to remain two metres apart."

The Government had published a "clear set of instructions" and "it's for the police to exercise discretion over how they use the powers that are available".

'Overzealous' officials 'wrongly' told shops to stop selling Easter eggs

Convenience stores have been "wrongly" told to stop selling Easter eggs amid the coronavirus pandemic as they are considered non-essential goods, a trade body claims.

Some independent shops reported that council officers had attempted to tell them what items they could and could not sell, including chocolate eggs and hot cross buns.

But the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) accused officials of "misreading" the rules and has now told its members to continue selling such items as normal.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said in a statement: "The Government have defined which stores can remain open, and that includes convenience stores including newsagents and off-licences.

"There is no Government definition of which products can be sold within those stores.

"This is overzealous enforcement and a misreading of the rules."

Government guidelines state that corner shops, newsagents and supermarkets are allowed to stay open during the pandemic, while businesses such as barbershops and restaurants should close.

Mr Lowman added: "In the cases where officers have challenged retailers and shoppers in this way, it's brought confusion, distracted retailers in the busiest weeks of their lives, and increased the interactions between people at a time when the Government is trying to minimise them."

An ACS spokesman said about four convenience stores reported that they had been "wrongly" told by council environmental health officers to stop selling certain items which they deemed as non-essential.

The ACS, which represents more than 33,500 shops, said it had contacted Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards, which confirmed that convenience stores should continue to sell all available products as normal.

Mr Lowman said local enforcement officers had been "interpreting rules in their own way" and taking "incorrect approaches".

"We advise any retailer facing this challenge to continue seeking their normal range, and to contact us with the name of the local authority or police force and officer so we can follow up with them," Mr Lowman said.

Police Scotland's 25 fines over the weekend

Police Scotland issued 25 fixed penalty notices over the weekend to people flouting the regulations introduced in a bid to stop people from spreading coronavirus in public places.

The new powers in the Coronavirus Act make it a criminal offence to flout the public health guidance on social distancing to prevent Covid-19.

On-the-spot fines of £30 can be issued to people who breach social distancing measures, rising to £60 if they are not paid within 28 days and capped at £960 for repeat offenders.

Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme that, despite the small number of cases where fines were issued, the vast majority of the public were complying with the new regulations.

Mr Graham said: "We've had high-visibility patrols right across the country since we were given these enforcement powers and it's clear that the vast majority of people are complying with the measures that are in place.

"We issued 25 fixed penalty notices across Scotland over the course of Saturday and Sunday and I think that is strong evidence of how these extraordinary powers have had an impact in such a short space of time with communities across Scotland.

"We've also received a significant number of calls, firstly from people asking how do we comply with these regulations and, secondly, reporting people they felt were breaching them.

"We responded to those calls to make sure we could again explain why it was important, encourage people to comply with them, and in those very small number of occasions use the enforcement powers that we've got where that very small minority of people just refuse to comply with what is required.

"There was broadly three situations that happened in. We had a number of house parties still going on; we were called to attend, and people refused to break those up, then notices could be issued.

"We had groups of people outside and again, if people have refused to comply, that was some of the circumstances, and in a very small number of cases we issued fixed penalty notices to businesses that were still operating where it was not appropriate that they should continue to given the regulations that are in place."

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