Coronavirus / What can the police do?

Coronavirus: what can the police do?

This information was correct as of 1 April 2021, but is subject to possible changes.

This page sets out the law and guidance which applies in England only.

How are the new Step rules going to be enforced?

Gatherings

If a police officer (or other relevant person, like a police community support officer or ‘PCSO’) believes that you are gathering with other people in a way which is banned by the regulations, they have the power to:

  • tell the people gathering to disperse
  • tell you (or any other person in the gathering) to return home
  • remove any person from the gathering (only a police officer can do this).

They are allowed to use reasonable force to remove you from the gathering. But any action they take must be a necessary and proportionate way of making sure you follow the rules.

If you don’t comply with the police’s instructions, and you don’t have a reasonable excuse for not doing so, this is a separate criminal offence and you could be fined or charged.

Children

If a police officer or other relevant person believes that a child has broken the rules on gathering with others, and you currently have custody or charge of the child, they can tell you to take the child home. As far as reasonably practicable, you must ensure the child complies with the rules.

If you don’t, and you don’t have a reasonable excuse for not doing so, this is a separate criminal offence and you could be fined or charged.

It is important to note that the regulations do not provide police with the power to enter your property, although they may be able to enter for other reasons, such as if they have a search warrant or in certain other circumstances.

Guidance given to police by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and College of Policing (COP) says they should encourage you to comply voluntarily in the first instance. However if you do not respond appropriately, then enforcement can follow without repeated attempts to encourage you to comply with the law.

Travelling offences

If a police officer or other relevant person considers that you are on your way to an embarkation point, or are already at an embarkation point, and that you are not exempt from the requirement to produce a travel declaration form, they can:

  • ask you to produce your travel declaration form, or
  • ask you to complete a travel declaration form if you haven’t already done so.

If you refuse to produce or to complete a travel declaration form, or if the relevant person considers that you don’t have a reasonable excuse for travelling, they can direct you to leave the embarkation point.

If you don’t comply with that direction, that is a separate criminal offence and you could be fined or charged.

Guidance isn't law

Police can only enforce the law – which is set out in the regulations. Guidance isn’t law. And so government social distancing guidance – such as advice to stay 2-metres apart or to limit travel to the local area – isn’t enforceable by the police.

This means that you shouldn’t be given a fine for not following the advice set out in government guidance.

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.

As described on our page on gathering rules, it is a criminal offence to gather indoors in most circumstances and to gather outdoors in groups of more than six in most circumstances. The police should only take action against you if they have what is known as “reasonable grounds to suspect” that you have committed an offence.

“Reasonable grounds” simply means that the police have observed or know something that would lead a reasonable person to believe that an offence has been, or is about to be, committed.

What is reasonable force? What happens if the police use excessive force?

Under the new lockdown rules, police can use reasonable force to remove you from a gathering if they believe that you are gathering in a way which is banned by the rules. They can only do this if it’s necessary and proportionate to do so.

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 your home 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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