Coronavirus: Police turning parts of UK into 'dystopia' after prosecuting people driving 'due to boredom' and shoppers

March 30, 2020

Police have been accused of overreaching their powers in the wake of new coronavirus legislation, after one force said it was prosecuting people for activities including driving "due to boredom" and "going to the shops" with other members of the same household.

Legal and human rights experts described Warrington Police's actions as "dystopian" after officers opted to summon people to court for supposed offences such as "returning from parties", with critics arguing the measures were not justified by the new legislation and risked harming the ongoing effort to combat the outbreak.

It comes after other forces faced criticism for using drones to monitor people out for walks in public and erecting roadblocks to stop drivers heading to tourist attractions.

Warrington Police said six people "have been summonsed for offences relating to the new coronavirus legislation to protect the public".

According to statement posted by the force on social media, these purported offences included one person "out for a drive due to boredom", people "returning from parties" and "multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items".

Asked about the way police were interpreting the new rules at the daily Downing Street briefing, and about whether the UK was becoming a "police state", Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said "of course we back the police doing a very difficult job in unprecedented circumstances" but that "common sense" should be used.

Jules Carey, a human rights lawyer and partner at Bindmans LLP, told Sky News the government legislation - under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 - indicated any offences would be punishable by fixed penalty fines.

"By referring to 'summonses', they appear to be suggesting they will be dragging people into criminal court for this," he said.

"Not only does this use up court space and general resources at a time of national crisis, when things are already stretched, but it also criminalises people unnecessarily.

"These measures were brought in to protect civilians and they should certainly be used as a far as is reasonable and proportionate.

"But the police need to get it into their head that these powers are, fundamentally, being introduced to help ensure that we as citizens are safe.

"This kind of thing is contributing to this dystopian sense of society where we risk adding significant mental health concerns on top of the existing fears around our physical health.

"It is very important that the police retain public trust as we face this crisis but overzealous actions such as these - along with the use of drones and roadblocks - will call into question the integrity of the police and they will rapidly lose credibility."

Others have pointed out that driving, even if "due to boredom", was unlikely to present any risk of spreading coronavirus if the person in question was alone.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove previously told Sky News it was "unlikely" police would be pulling cars over just for driving.

And while the legislation says no person should leave their home "without reasonable excuse", it does not prohibit "multiple people from the same household going to the shops".

Legal commentator David Allen Green highlighted Warrington Police's apparent decision to order people to court rather than issue fixed penalty notices.

"It means criminal convictions and criminal records," he said.

"Just be careful what you clamour for."

Dr Sylvia de Mars, a legal academic based at Newcastle Law School, also criticised the actions of Warrington Police: "Out of these, only returning from parties is arguably covered by the legislation, in that one presumes the party itself involved a gathering of more than two people.

"Returning from it is not really the problem!

"The rest is mad police overreach. Calm the hell down, please."

Cheshire Police, of which Warrington Police is part, has been contacted for comment.

Last week, Derbyshire Police defended its use of drones to deter people from flouting coronavirus lockdown rules by walking in the Peak District.

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