Coronavirus / What can the police do?

Coronavirus: what can the police do?

This information was correct as of 23 July 2020, but is subject to possible changes.

Unless otherwise stated, this page sets out the law and guidance which applies in England only.

How are these new rules going to be enforced?

If a police officer (or other relevant person, like a police community support officer, or PCSO for short) 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.

If a police officer or other relevant person believes that you are in a restricted area without a reasonable excuse, they have the power to:

  • tell you to leave the restricted area immediately
  • remove you from the restricted area.

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

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.

A briefing 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. It also says they should tell you about the regulations and remind you about the public health risks of coronavirus.

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 about meeting up in groups of no more than two households indoors, and in groups of no more than six people from different households outdoors, and advice to stay 2-metres apart – isn’t enforceable by the police.

This means that you shouldn’t be given a fine for breaking the rules set out in this guidance.

This can be confusing, as rules which were previously set out in the regulations about meeting people from other households indoors and outdoors is now guidance only. The only legal restriction which applies is about gathering in groups of more than 30 people in certain circumstances. The Government states that it trusts people to continue acting responsibly and to follow the 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 have the power to 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.

However, refusing to answer the police’s questions (for example, about why you are gathering in a group of more than 30 people or why you are in a restricted area) could give them reason to believe you are breaching the new regulations. This is because it is now a criminal offence to gather in groups of more than 30 people in certain circumstances or to be in a restricted area without a reasonable excuse.

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

Under the new 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 also remove you from a restricted area if they believe you are there without a reasonable excuse. In each case, 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 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, what offence you are being arrested for, and why it’s necessary to arrest you. 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 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

Did you find this content useful?

Help us make our content even better by letting us know whether you found this page useful or not