Most of the British public is sticking to the rules. We have been asked to stay at home, and largely that is what we are doing. We have been asked to socially distance when we do need to leave home to shop for groceries or exercise. It therefore concerns me when the police – who can only do their job with the consent of the public – set-up snitch lines encouraging neighbours to spy on each other and report anyone they think is breaking the law.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was exercising in a large open space near his home in Kent. During his walk he started hearing police officers speaking through a loudspeaker. Eventually, a police car arrived, and an officer got out and asked a lady nearby, who was walking her dogs, what she was doing there. If he had asked me that question, he would have received the most sarcastic reply.
It is not just in Kent where some officers of an authoritarian bent have relished their new powers. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had to slap down the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police, Nick Adderley, for saying, just before the Easter weekend, that if people do not heed the warnings to stay at home, he would instruct his officers to rummage through people’s shopping trolleys and shopping bags. The Home Secretary said, “Let me be clear on that… that is not the guidance.” She is right. Take a look at the new regulations, and Section 6 in particular.
Then there was the dozy sergeant who tried to issue a £80 fine to a bakery owner in North West London for marking out two-metre lines using spray chalk on the pavement outside her premises. (Please remember that spray chalk washes away as soon as it rains or is scuffed by footfall.)
“The law doesn’t stop unfortunately”, he said. “It’s still a criminal offence. The law is the law and it doesn’t change because of what is happening. There would be anarchy in the world.” Anarchy? All because a responsible shop owner did her bit to keep her customers apart, this seems unlikely. The charge was dropped after a video of the encounter went viral on social media, and a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said that the “officer has been spoken to and all staff on the borough will be reminded about using discretion where appropriate in these exceptional times.”
Brockwell Park in Brixton, London, was in the news recently because residents had the audacity to use it to exercise. In total, around 3,000 people used the park, comfortably fitting into a park of over 125 acres, but that didn’t stop Lambeth Council from closing the park the following day. In all the pictures I have seen of people sitting on the grass, all of them were following social distancing rules, but that didn’t stop the Police (who normally complain that they are under-resourced) from walking up to local residents and moving them on. Have they got nothing better to do?
It has to be said, though, that the Metropolitan Police are not over-zealous when it suits them. On Thursday 16th April, the police and other emergency service workers, along with members of the public, clapped for care workers on Westminster Bridge. They allowed a large group of people to congregate closely in breach of the law. Some were rubbing shoulders with each other. To make matters worse, the Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, was one of the officers taking part.
Moreover, I am getting increasingly annoyed at people with gardens complaining about those who live in flats visiting parks to take some exercise. I am fortunate and I know it. We don’t have a large garden, but it is big enough for our young son to run around and kick a ball. About three minutes from our front door is open pastureland (which sadly is very boggy in places) where I can take him for a walk. I am not going to lecture anyone who lives on the tenth floor of a block of flats, often in cramped conditions with other family members, for deciding to travel to a green space.
The good news, though, is that the regulations do not forbid anyone driving to somewhere quieter to take exercise. Joint guidelines from the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing state that it is likely to be reasonable for someone to drive to the countryside and have a walk, as long as far more time is spent walking than driving. If you live in a city, particularly London, it could and should be argued that someone can drive for ten minutes or so to get to a large park to exercise for 45 minutes. In many ways such a journey is unavoidable. The guidelines also say that it is likely to be reasonable to stop to rest or to eat lunch while on a long walk.
All of us want life to return to normal as soon as possible, but what the police should do (and in most cases appear to be doing) is exercise judgment and common sense. We have been asked to socially distance, avoid going outside when it is not necessary, and when we do leave our homes, stay two metres apart. The vast majority of us are doing just that. The last thing we need is for trust in the police to be further eroded by some officers and forces who literally take the law into their own hands and interpret it in the most draconian way possible.