Coronavirus / What can the police do?

Coronavirus: what can the police do?

This information was correct as of 28 February 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.

Travelling Offences

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 are unvaccinated and 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 they have travelled from a red list country. 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.


On 24 February 2022, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 were revoked. These regulations required you to self-isolate if you test positive for coronavirus on a PCR test, or if you were identified as a close contact. This has therefore removed almost every requirement to self-isolate. This includes when you have travelled from a non-red list country and tested positive, even if you are unvaccinated. The NHS Test and Trace service has also closed down.

There are some remaining self-isolation requirements when travelling from red list countries[JA2] . However, at the time of publishing, there are no countries on the red list.

However, NHS guidance still recommends staying home if you test positive to avoid transmitting the virus.

Guidance isn't law

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 more information about both the law and the 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 after they believe you have arrived from a red list country.

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.

Reasons under which it is considered 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.

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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