Coronavirus / Police powers / What powers do the police have under the Coronavirus Act 2020?

What powers do the police have under the Coronavirus Act 2020?

The Coronavirus Act 2020 was introduced in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus crisis. It gives the police certain powers in relation to the pandemic. But there has been a lot of confusion over exactly what the police can and can’t do under the Act.

On this page, we explain the powers the police have under the Coronavirus Act and how these differ from the powers they have under the Health Protection Regulations to enforce the lockdown.

What is the purpose of the Coronavirus Act 2020?

The Government says the purpose of the Coronavirus Act 2020 is to make sure public services and bodies involved in the coronavirus response – such as schools, hospitals and the police – have the tools and powers they need.

The Act will remain in force for two years unless the Government decides to remove it sooner. It must also be reviewed and voted on by Parliament every six months.

What is Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act?

Schedule 21 is the section of the Coronavirus Act that specifies the powers given to police officers, public health officers and immigration officers to take actions against “potentially infectious” people.

These powers include requiring you to undergo screening for coronavirus and imposing restrictions on you, such as limiting your movement or your contact with other people.

Schedule 21 also creates criminal offences if you don’t comply. These are outlined further below.

What is the difference between the rules in Schedule 21 and the lockdown rules?

The rules enforcing the lockdown are covered in a separate piece of legislation: the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020. See our guide for more information on these rules.

The police can enforce the lockdown rules against anybody who stays overnight away from their home without a reasonable excuse, or anyone who gathers with other people in a way which is banned by the rules. There is no need for a public health officer to be involved.

In contrast, the rules in Schedule 21 only apply to someone who is “potentially infectious” as described on this page. In addition, the police should only enforce these rules when asked to do so by a public health officer, or after consulting with one, unless it is totally impractical for them to do so.

In most cases, if the police believe you have committed an offence under the lockdown rules, they will ask you to pay a fixed penalty notice to the local council. If you pay this, you will avoid further legal action.

But the police cannot issue a fixed penalty notice under Schedule 21. If they believe you have committed an offence, they can only charge you and take you to court.

Why is there confusion?

The police have been charging people under both the Health Protection Regulations and Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act. But following a review by the Crown Prosecution Service, it was announced in May that all 44 cases charged under the Coronavirus Act had been incorrectly charged, because they did not relate to “potentially infectious” people.

If the police try to charge you with an offence under the Coronavirus Act outside the circumstances outlined on this page, it should be a red flag. You should get advice from a solicitor or contact us for further information.

Who is a “potentially infectious” person?

You are “potentially infectious” if:

  • you are or may be infected with coronavirus and there is a risk that you might infect others, or
  • you have been in an area that has been declared as an “infected area” by the Secretary of State for Health.

Police officers, public health officers and immigration officers can only exercise the powers in Schedule 21 if they have “reasonable grounds” to suspect you are potentially infectious.

What are “reasonable grounds”?

The term “reasonable” usually means what an ordinary person would think was fair, based on all the information they have.

A joint briefing given to the police by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and the College of Policing (COP) explains that police officers should get advice from a public health officer when considering whether they have reasonable grounds to use these powers.

The police should not use these powers simply because you are in breach of the lockdown rules.

Who is a public health officer and what can they do?

A public health officer is someone designated by the Government who can take action under Schedule 21. There is no legal requirement for them to be medically trained. Public Health England has told the police to contact their regional health protection team to find out who their local health protection officers are.

If a public health officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting you are potentially infectious, they can:

  • tell you to go immediately to a place for screening and assessment
  • take you there themselves
  • ask a police officer to take you there
  • require you to stay at the screening and assessment place for up to 48 hours
  • require you to submit to screening and assessment
  • require you to answer questions about your health.

If you test positive for coronavirus, or if the tests are inconclusive, or if the public health officer who assessed you has reasonable grounds to suspect you are potentially infectious, a public health officer can impose a range of restrictions or requirements on you. These include:

  • requiring you to provide details of people you have had contact with
  • requiring you to stay in isolation in a given place
  • restrictions on your movement, travel, work and contact with other people.

If you disagree with the decision to place a restriction or requirement on you, you have the right to appeal the decision to a magistrates’ court. You should speak to a solicitor about this.

In general, requirements and restrictions can only imposed up to a maximum of 14 days, but there are some exceptions.

A public health officer can only take any of the steps listed above if they consider it necessary and proportionate to do so in your interests, for the protection of other people, or for maintaining public health.

What are the police powers in Schedule 21?

If a police officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting you are potentially infectious, they can:

  • tell you to go immediately to a place for screening and assessment, or
  • they can take you there themselves.

If you are already at a place for screening and assessment, a police officer can keep you there for up to 24 hours until a public health officer can carry out the screening and assessment.  This time limit can be extended for a further 24 hours by a senior police officer.

The police can also enforce a requirement imposed on you by a public health officer to stay in a particular place.

Can the police use force to make me comply?

The police can use reasonable force when exercising these powers. But there are important limits:

  • A police officer can only take these steps if they consider it necessary and proportionate to do so in your interests, for the protection of other people, or for maintaining public health.
  • A police officer must consult a public health officer before taking any of these steps, as far as it is practical to do so.

The NPCC/COP briefing given to police makes it clear the police should only use their powers under Schedule 21 to support public health teams.

It says: “if you come across someone in the community with suspected coronavirus, Public Health should either be directing you or you will be taking their advice before action. We do not envisage you ever acting without their express request or on their advice”.

Can I be charged with a criminal offence?

Yes, Schedule 21 creates a number of new criminal offences. It’s against the law if you:

  • don’t comply with what a public health officer, police officer or immigration officer tells you to do (unless you have a reasonable excuse)
  • don’t make sure your child complies with what a public health officer, police officer or immigration officer tells your child to do (unless you have a reasonable excuse)
  • run away or try to run away from a place where you are being taken or kept
  • provide information which you know to be untrue or misleading
  • obstruct a person who is enforcing Schedule 21.

If you are convicted of any of these offences by a court, you could receive a fine of up to £1,000.

The NPCC/COP briefing advises the police to encourage you to comply voluntarily in the first instance. They should tell you what you need to do, explain why, and explain that it is an offence if you fail to comply.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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