Coronavirus / Policing / Stop and search


Posted on 27 Jul 2020

  • Liberty reveals full extent of overpolicing during lockdown
  • Records show surge in discriminatory Section 60 stop and search
  • Human rights organisation calls for the Coronavirus Act to be scrapped

The full scale of the use and abuse of police powers during the coronavirus lockdown has been revealed today as Liberty calls on the Government to scrap the Coronavirus Act and take meaningful action on discriminatory policing.

Records obtained by Liberty under Freedom of Information laws reveal that the Metropolitan Police dramatically increased the use of the most acutely discriminatory form of stop and search during lockdown.

This surge in Section 60 stop and search followed the Government handing sweeping powers to police forces under emergency legislation and the Coronavirus Act. Chaotic communication and overzealous enforcement meant these powers were routinely misused and led to widespread discrimination in the handing out of lockdown fines.

This range of powers have contributed to a climate of widespread and arbitrary over-policing, and severely undermined the concept of “policing by consent” on which the police claim to get their authority.

This week, Liberty sent a briefing to every MP setting out the dangers of such sweeping criminal justice powers and why the Coronavirus Act needs to be repealed to ensure our rights are protected.

Pandemic of police powers

The Coronavirus Act, passed in March, gives the police broad new powers to detain anyone who could be infectious – and hold them without a judge’s authority. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, every single prosecution under these provisions of the Act was unlawful.

The day after Parliament passed the Act, the Government introduced further police powers under emergency legislation to police the coronavirus lockdown. It regularly changed these without warning and, without justification, continued to use emergency legislation to ensure the powers went unscrutinised.

  • Analysis by Liberty Investigates, Liberty’s independent journalism unit, found that the police powers introduced to enforce the coronavirus lockdown have followed patterns of discrimination shown in stop and search.
  • Police in 17 forces were more likely to issue a penalty notice to BAME people than to white people. Just two forces were not.
  • In some areas people of colour were up to seven times more likely to be fined under lockdown regulations than white people.
  • There was also huge discrepancy in how much different forces used their new powers – with some issuing fines at a rate of 26 times more than others.
  • According to the Crown Prosecution Service, at least 89 people have been prosecuted under the Coronavirus Act, and every prosecution has been incorrect and withdrawn.

Liberty has been campaigning for the repeal of the Coronavirus Act, which created a dangerous array of new state powers. The Government’s strategy has been to meet a public health crisis with a criminal justice response, putting our rights and health at risk, the human rights organisation says.

As the regulations have changed, Liberty has been issuing continuously updated guidance to help people ensure they don’t fall foul of changing rules and face criminal sanctions.

Section 60 stop and search under lockdown

Section 60 orders, which allow officers to stop and search people with no grounds for suspicion and lead to extreme levels of discrimination. Police are only supposed to authorise the use of Section 60 stop and search when there has been serious violence or where serious violence may occur in a particular area.

  • Police in London issued 65 Section 60 authorisations in May. This was a sharp rise from 13 times in April and was far higher than equivalent months in recent years.
  • In May alone, the Metropolitan Police stopped and searched 1,418 people under this power – more than double the number of people stopped in May 2019.
  • In London, Black people are four times more likely than white people to be subject to a stop and search. This disproportionality rises when the requirement of “reasonable grounds” is removed under Section 60, up to over 11 times in London, and higher elsewhere.
  • Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick told the Home Affairs Select Committee that officers had stopped and searched more than 20,000 young black men in London during the coronavirus lockdown – the equivalent more than a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-olds in the capital.
  • NPCC figures show that before the Met ramped-up stop and search during lockdown, crime levels had fallen.

Liberty Director Martha Spurrier said:

“Police were handed extraordinary powers to enforce the lockdown and detain anyone who could be infectious. Early on we saw overzealous policing with officers using drone-surveillance to shame people online. As the pandemic continued, rapid changes to the rules were accompanied by more chaotic communications, leaving people fearing criminal sanctions for unknown offences.

“The result was widespread overpolicing and the over-use and abuse of new and old powers. Individuals, communities, and long-term trust in the police have been harmed as a result of the Government’s determination to approach a public health situation with a criminal justice crackdown.

“The Government needs to commit to scrapping the Coronavirus Act and take this opportunity to build a public health strategy that has human rights at its heart. It’s long past time to scrap Section 60 stop and search and take meaningful action on discrimination in British policing.”

Contact the Liberty press office on 07973 831 128 or

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