Coronavirus / What can the police do?

Coronavirus: what can the police do?

This information was correct as of 14 December 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 the new Tier rules going to be enforced?

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

The police can also fine you or charge you with a criminal offence for breaking the rules in your Tier if you don’t have a reasonable excuse for doing so.

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 for this too.

You can find out more about the rules which apply in each Tier in our pages on Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3.


If a police officer or other relevant person believes that a child has broken the rules on gathering with others in their Tier, 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.

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 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 who you are gathering with) could give them reason to believe you are breaching the new regulations. This is because it is now a criminal offence to breach the rules in the Tier you are in. For example, in Tier 3 it is an offence to gather outside with more than one other person except in certain types of public places, so if you live in Tier 3 and you are gathering outside with two other people the police might ask you what you are doing. Refusal to answer them may lead them to believe you are breaching the rules.

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 Tier 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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