UK police accused of abusing power to enforce COVID-19 lockdown

Some police may have gone ‘further than they should have’, says government minister, amid concerns over civil liberties.

UK police
A police officer speaks to a couple sat at a bench in the sunshine in Greenwich Park in London on March 26, 2020 after the government ordered a lockdown to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus [Ben Stansall/AFP]

As Britons navigate their way around restrictions to try and contain the spread of the new coronavirus, there are growing fears that police officers are abusing their new powers.

Some British police might have gone too far, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News on Tuesday, less than a week after the UK approved emergency legislation that gave police the power to issue instant 30-pound ($37) fines to people who gather in groups of more than two people or leave their homes without good reason such as for work, food-shopping or exercise.

“I am sure there are individual examples where perhaps you look at it and think that is perhaps a bit further than they should have gone but in general terms, I think the case is that if people help everybody out, including the police, by staying home and the rest of it, then there will be no problems,” said Shapps.

Some police have been accused of being overzealous by using drones to spy on people taking walks at nature spots and stopping dog-walkers from driving their pets to open spaces. There were reports they had even urged some shops not to sell Easter eggs because they were not essential items.

“The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform, they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command,” Jonathan Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court judge, told the BBC.

“This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

As the national conversation turned to the lockdown enforcement, #policestate trended on Twitter in the UK, with several users offering their views. 

“In all this, we cannot forget the importance of our civil liberties. Whilst this does not mean we should be able to do whatever we want, it does mean that the police should not abuse their power in such a vulnerable time,” said Twitter user Olivia Lewis. 

Unlike other countries, forces in Britain “police by consent” and pride themselves on being answerable to the public and not the state.

Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said they were looking to ensure consistency in the police response as everyone got to grip with the new “unprecedented measures”.

“Our plan is that we will engage with people, we will explain the measures … we will encourage people to go home but then as a very last resort we will enforce,” he told BBC radio.

The government drafted in the new regulations amid concern some Britons were failing to heed advice to avoid social gatherings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The fast-tracked 329-page emergency bill faced little resistance in Parliament.

Before the regulations were introduced, the opposition Labour Party’s Lord Falconer of Thoroton said he supported the powers.

“In normal times it would be utterly unacceptable. These are not normal times. As long as the emergency lasts and these powers are necessary, they should be available to the government.”

In recent interviews with Al Jazeera, human rights experts said draconian measures to contain the spread of coronavirus were understandable in the short term, even if they limited civil liberties, but warned global governments should not abuse their powers.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies