Policing the lockdown: has it gone too far?

Policing the lockdown: has it gone too far?

“We British like to think of ourselves as a moderate people,” said Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, and most of us believe that our police are “equally measured and sensible”. Not for us the “heavy-handed policing which is the bane of European countries”. But is all that changing under the pandemic? Are lockdown rules bringing out a “latent authoritarianism” among those who enforce the law? “Are we even witnessing disquieting signs of a prototype police state?” That may sound “fanciful”, but we are seeing worrying trends. Fines of £200 are being handed out willy-nilly, as in the case of two young women who were penalised by Derbyshire Police for driving to the country for a walk. People have been cautioned for sitting on benches, and having snowball fights. The West Midlands Police and Crime commissioner has asked for officers to be given the power to enter people’s houses to enforce Covid regulations.

“I won’t deny that some incidents have been petty,” said Clare Foges in The Times – “but overall I am glad of this gear change to more assertive policing.” It’s not “the incompetence of our Government” alone that has driven up infection rates; it’s also “the disobedience of our fellow citizens”. Illegal raves have been regularly reported throughout the lockdown. And then there are the “millions of minor rule-twistings that alone seem inconsequential, but together notch up thousands of infections a day”. People are clearly not staying at home. “Traffic is at 65% of normal levels; where are they all going?” To spread, the virus needs people to mix. “If the threat of flashing lights and fines deters a fraction of that mixing, good.” True, said Suzanne Moore in The Daily Telegraph. But following the rules is hard. We know that many don’t self-isolate because they simply cannot afford not to go to work. People are sending their children to school for the same reason, not because they are selfish. “Many people are simply at breaking point – suffering from depression, a lack of income and a future that looks bleak.” It’s wrong to punish them.

The vagueness of the rules doesn’t help, said Anoosh Chakelian in the New Statesman. Take Boris Johnson’s bike ride last Sunday in Stratford’s Olympic Park, seven miles from his Downing Street home. He was much criticised for it, but he didn’t break any law: it’s only government guidance that you should remain in your “local area”; it’s not written in the legislation (nor is the rule that you should only exercise once a day). This uncertainty – the gap between the spirit and the letter of the law – makes policing very difficult, and threatens to create a real “breakdown in public trust”.


 

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