Coronavirus: policing

Published 01/05/2020   |   Reading Time minutes

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, police forces across Wales are now charged with enforcing restrictions on movement and gatherings in order to save lives and protect the NHS. This blog outlines the current situation on policing the pandemic, a summary of relevant regulations and statistics on those breaking lockdown.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Policing and criminal justice

What elements of the Coronavirus response is the Welsh Government responsible for?

The Welsh Government is responsible for the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic in Wales. Major public services affected by the pandemic, including the NHS, social care and education are the responsibility of the Welsh Government. However, policing and justice matters are not devolved to Wales and remain the responsibility of the UK Government.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 conferred new powers on the Welsh Ministers in areas such as health and education. For example, the Act empowers Ministers from the devolved administrations to provide an indemnity cover for health workers during the pandemic, and to temporarily close educational establishments. The Coronavirus Bill required consent from the National Assembly for Wales before it could be made law as it contained powers in areas of devolved responsibility. The Assembly gave its formal approval to the UK parliament bill on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

Coronavirus regulations

The Welsh Government moved swiftly to exercise its new powers, making health protection regulations to impose restrictions and requirements on people in Wales. Each of the four UK nations made its own health protection regulations. While similar in scope, in terms of placing restrictions on movement and public gatherings and requiring a wide range of premises and businesses to close, the regulations do include a few notable differences.

The variations in the coronavirus restriction regulations in England and Wales (published in March 2020) caused some confusion for police forces and the public. Policing is not devolved to Wales but Welsh police forces found themselves in a situation where they needed to follow Welsh Government rules on enforcing social distancing measures.

Guidance was issued to police forces in England only. The guidance, issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing, detailed what English forces should consider a “reasonable excuse” for someone to leave their home during lockdown. The advice included things like driving to the countryside to walk, or going out to exercise more than once a day. The differences in the coronavirus regulations between England and Wales have now been set out in specific guidance for Welsh police forces, which covers the distinctions between two-metre distancing, exercising, powers of entry, closures of public paths and land and issuing fines.

Coronavirus regulations – differences between England and Wales

  • Two-metre distancing. In Wales, business premises that provide essential services (such as food retailers, off-licences and pharmacies) and places of worship open for permitted uses must take all reasonable measures to ensure a distance of two metres is maintained between people. (In England, this measure is only suggested as government guidance and is therefore unenforceable under the regulations).
  • Exercising once a day. In Wales, individuals must not leave their homes for exercise more than once a day, and this daily hours’ exercise must be done alone, unless with household members or a carer (in England, this measure is only suggested as government guidance and is therefore unenforceable under the regulations). The Welsh Government amended its regulations on 24 April to permit exercise more than once a day in certain cases i.e. where there is a medical reason for doing so. This is particularly aimed at helping families with children with autism and learning disabilities.
  • Enforcement. The Welsh regulations’ list of relevant persons is wider than those used in England. National Park Authorities in Wales and Natural Resources Wales can designate relevant persons who can enforce the prohibition on persons entering closed paths or lands.
  • Obligation to close public paths and land during the emergency period. Welsh regulations have imposed an obligation on relevant authorities to close public paths or access land liable to attract large numbers of people in close proximity. The relevant authorities include local authorities, National Park Authorities in Wales, Natural Resources Wales and the National Trust.
  • Power of entry. Welsh regulations give powers of entry if a relevant person has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a requirement imposed by the Welsh regulations is being, has been or is about to be contravened on the premises and that it is necessary to enter the premises to ascertain this.
  • Amount of fixed penalty notice. The Welsh regulations specify an initial fine of £60 for the first offence. The amount of any subsequent fixed penalty is £120, with no reduction for early payment. (In England, the fine doubles for subsequent offences up to a maximum of £960.)
  • Issuing a fine. English police forces issue a penalty notice for Coronavirus, as their fines are being collected by ACRO Criminal Records Office. The Welsh Government is hoping to negotiate the same process for the four Welsh police forces.

Policing the Coronavirus lockdown in Wales

The police response to enforcing the measures set out in the UK and Welsh Government regulations to require the closure of premises and businesses, and restrict movement and gatherings is to ‘police by consent’. This is an approach to policing that is based on the recognition that the power of the police to fulfil its functions and duties, is dependent on public approval, and its ability to secure and maintain public respect.

Chief Constable Mike Cunningham, College of Policing CEO said that “the top priority for the police is to keep people safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19”. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) – which is the representative body for police chief officers in England and Wales - has made clear that use of police power under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and associated regulations is public health led. The NPCC said the police are not seeking to criminalise people, but to ensure that people follow the public health advice; “to stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”.

Police forces in England and Wales are following four-step escalation principles (known as the four E’s approach): Engage; Explain; Encourage; and Enforce.

Guidance sets out that the initial police response should be to encourage voluntary compliance; stressing the risk to public health and the NHS and asking individuals, groups or businesses whether they have heard about the new guidance, and how quickly they can comply with it.

The police’s main focus is the regulations relating to individuals. If the police believe someone is outside of the place where they are living without a reasonable excuse, officers have the power to direct that person to return to the place where they are living. The police have powers to disperse gatherings of more than 3 people (i.e. to direct or remove any person from that gathering to their home, where they are not members of the same household).

Anyone contravening these requirements commits an offence, punishable on summary conviction by a fine. In Wales, a fine for £60 may be issued, payable within 28 days, but this is reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days. Court proceedings may be brought in cases of non-payment. If a person commits an offence for the second occasion the penalty increases to £120.

In Wales, regulations affecting permitted retail premises and businesses are mainly enforced by local authorities. Their Environmental Health and Trading Standards officers lead on enforcing and monitoring the closure of business premises and will be able to issue prohibition notices.

Welsh Ministers have a duty to review the restrictions every 3 weeks. The first review was 16 April 2020, which saw the restrictions extended for three more weeks. The next review is due 7 May 2020.

How many people in Wales are breaking lockdown rules?

Provisional data from police forces in England and Wales shows that the vast majority of the public are following government regulations to stay at home in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Police officers in England and Wales issued 3,203 fines for breaches of the government public health regulations between 27 March and 13 April 2020.

On the enforcement of the public health regulations, NPCC Chair Martin Hewitt said:

The vast majority of people are staying at home in order to protect the NHS and help save lives. However, we have seen a small minority of people who, despite our best efforts, have refused to follow the instructions and officers have needed to use their enforcement powers.

I want to thank everyone who is being responsible and following the regulations.

Provisional data on the number of fines issued by police forces shows proportionate policing of these new regulations. Police have interacted with the public in their tens of thousands, with most engagements ending positively and with no need for a fine.

Our approach of - engage, explain and encourage, and only as a last resort, enforce - is working and will continue.

In Wales, a total of 290 fines were issued between 27 March and 13 April 2020. Of these:

  • 123 were issued by Dyfed-Powys Police;
  • 80 were issued by Gwent Police;
  • 61 were issued by South Wales Police; and
  • 26 were issued by North Wales Police.

Home Affairs Select Committee report

On 17 April 2020 the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee published its policing report into the Home Office’s preparations for and response to coronavirus.

The report says the overall police response to coronavirus has been proportionate and effective but warns that adherence to the regulations will ultimately depend on public support and trust, and maintaining the principle of policing by consent. The report calls for regular monitoring by the NPCC and College of Policing of police forces’ use of enforcement measures, and notes the changing pattern of crime during the pandemic.

The Committee will be producing further reports including on domestic abuse during the pandemic.

Article by Sarah Hatherley, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.