Coronavirus / What can the police do?
Coronavirus: what can the police do?
This information was correct as of 21 January 2022, but is subject to possible changes.
This page sets out the law and guidance which applies in England only.
How are the rules enforced?
On 19 July, every area in England moved into Step 4. As such, there are now no restrictions on gatherings, inside or outside. There are therefore no relevant restrictions to enforce.
While it is not an offence to travel out of England, there are still restrictions for arriving in England. Please see our articles for more information on the rules when travelling from countries on the red list or non-red list. These regulations are found in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel and Operator Liability) (England) Regulations 2021.
The police have the power to punish offences under these regulations. For example, if you do not possess a testing package when you arrive in England (and do not purchase one as soon as possible after arrival) this is an offence. Police officers can punish such offences using a Fixed Penalty Notice, or an arrest (which may then result in a criminal charge).
Police officers also have additional enforcement powers to require people to self-isolate. If you have travelled from a red list country and you are outside of the place where you are supposed to be quarantining, a police officer can direct you to return there, or physically return you there. This includes using reasonable force. Immigration officers can also enforce these rules in relation to red list countries.
If you have travelled from a red list country, and the police have reasonable grounds to suspect that you are not quarantining, they have an additional power to enter the premises where they believe you are and return you to your quarantining address. If they do so, the police officers must identify themselves, if asked, and must show evidence of their identity and explain the purpose of their entry. Again, this includes using reasonable force. Immigration officers do not have this power.
If you have travelled from a red list country and the police have reasonable grounds to believe that you have provided false, misleading or no information about your travel history (e.g. on your passenger locator form) then they have additional powers. In these circumstances they can:
- require you to show your travel documents
- detain you for up to three hours
- search you, your baggage or your vehicle
- seize any documents found from the search
- give you a Fixed Penalty Notice.
Immigration officers can also enforce these rules.
You are required to self-isolate if you are notified by NHS Test and Trace after a positive coronavirus test. You are also required to self-isolate if you have not been vaccinated and are notified by NHS Test and Trace that you have been in close contact with someone who received a positive coronavirus test. You are not required to self-isolate if you have been in close contact with someone who received a positive coronavirus test and you are fully vaccinated. There are also exemptions from the requirement to self-isolate when identified as a close contact if you are under 18. The full rules can be found in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 and a fuller explanation is available on our self-isolation page.
This notification should come by an official Test and Trace email, text message or phone call. The NHS COVID-19 app is not included. If you receive a notification to self-isolate via the app then it is recommended that you do so and that you get tested. However, you will not by liable to the same enforcement measures described below.
Under these regulations, you commit an offence if:
- You fail to self-isolate when told to by NHS Test and Trace
- You knowingly allow an employee who should be self-isolating to return to work
- You fail to tell your employer that you are required to self-isolate (unless you are not due to return to work before the end of the self-isolation)
- You knowingly give false information to NHS Test and Trace
- You obstruct an officer carrying out a duty under these regulations.
If you fail to self-isolate, a police officer can direct you to return to where you are supposed to be self-isolating. If they believe it is necessary and proportionate, they can physically take you there. This includes using reasonable force.
For this, or any other offence, a police officer can also give a Fixed Penalty Notice, or arrest and charge you.
Police can only enforce the law – which is set out in the regulations. Guidance isn’t law. This means that you shouldn’t be given a fine for not following the advice set out in government guidance, unless it is also in the regulations.
Our page on the new rules sets out where you can find both the regulations and social distancing guidance.
If I get stopped by the police, do I have to answer their questions?
Police can stop you in a public place and ask for your name, where you are going and what you are doing. This is known as “Stop and Account ”. In most circumstances, you don’t have to stay with the officer or answer their questions.
The police also have a power to stop vehicles for any reason. Again, they can ask you to account for yourself, but they can’t generally force you to stay or take further action against you unless they have good reason for doing so.
In normal circumstances the law is clear that, although the police can stop you in a public place and ask you questions (such as your name and what you are doing), you do not have to answer them and cannot be penalised for walking away. However, during the current coronavirus pandemic the situation is less clear. Although you can still refuse to answer and walk away, you should be aware that some police officers have used refusal to answer questions as a reason to believe you are breaching coronavirus rules.
This is still relevant if, for example, they suspect that you are breaching self-isolation requirements.
What is reasonable force? What happens if the police use excessive force?
Under the travel regulations, police can use reasonable force to return you to the place in which you should be isolating.
They can also use reasonable force if you resist arrest, or if it’s necessary to prevent a crime being committed. These powers come from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (known as PACE).
‘Reasonable force’ means using only as much force as they need in the circumstances. It must be the minimum – no more.
If the police use excessive force, you may be able to take a case against them for compensation. If you believe this has happened, you should speak to a solicitor specialising in actions against the police. Get help to find one here.
Can I be arrested?
The police can arrest you if they have good reason to believe you might have committed a crime – and that arresting you is necessary.
An example of when it might be considered necessary to arrest you is if you refuse to give your name and address when questioned. Other reasons it might be necessary to arrest you include:
- To allow the prompt and effective investigation of the suspected offence
- To prevent you from causing injury to yourself or others, or damaging property
- To prevent an unlawful obstruction of the highway
- To maintain public health
- To maintain public order.
If the police are going to arrest you, they should first identify themselves as police officers. They should also explain that you are being arrested, and the grounds and reasons for your arrest. See our page on what to do if you’re arrested.
According to the guidance that’s been given to the police, before fining you or charging you with an offence they should give you the option of complying with the regulations, for instance by returning to self-isolation voluntarily.
What do I do if I am unhappy with the way the police have treated me?
If you’re unhappy with the way the police have treated you, you can make a complaint.
If you believe the police have acted unlawfully, you should speak to a solicitor specialising in actions against the police. Get help to find one here.
You can also contact us for further advice. If you have been affected by any of the issues on this page, we’d like to hear from you.
Read our next page on criminal penalties.
What are my rights on this?
Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them
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