Coronavirus: What powers do the police have?

The lockdown rules have changed across all parts of the UK – with the most relaxed regime now operational in England.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own rules – and in each part of the UK, the police must enforce them.

Wherever you live in the UK, the police can:

  • Detain someone to be tested if they are believed to be infectious
  • Intervene to close a wide range of non-essential businesses
  • Restrict someone’s right to move around or to take part in a gathering

There are now at least 17 laws, known as regulations, governing freedom of movement across the UK – here are the links to the most important:

  • English regulations are here and here
  • Main Welsh regulations are here and here
  • The Scottish regulations are here and here
  • The Northern Ireland regulations are here and here

Originally, it was against the law in every part of the UK to be outside the place where you live “without reasonable excuse”, or to be part of a public gathering.

Today, the picture is really complicated. So let’s start with England.

From 1 June, anyone in England can be outside without needing a reasonable excuse. If someone wants to take a long car journey, they no longer need to explain themselves – providing they’re returning home that day.

Once outside, be it in public or a back garden, they can gather in groups of up to six people and the police won’t intervene.

For the first time since the lockdown began, people in England can stay overnight away from home for a range of specific reasons that include:

  • Attending a funeral
  • For reasonably necessary work
  • To provide care, or to avoid injury or harm.

Crucially, there is a still a general ban on any indoor meetings of more than two people, unless they have a similar reason, defined in law, for doing so.

The latest guidance to police in England tells officers they can order people to leave a home if they find an illegal indoor meeting.

These changes have created some rather unusual legal anomalies. Today in England, it’s an offence for a couple who do not live together to have an amorous reunion indoors. However, there is no actual legal requirement to remain 2m (6ft) apart in a back garden – although it remains a key part of the government guidance.

What about the rest of the UK?

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, people still need a reasonable excuse to be outside where they live – and in Wales to go beyond their local area.

What’s a reasonable excuse? The law across the UK has never been explicitly clear on what this means (see the Dominic Cummings row), but it does give examples which include:

  • Shopping for basic necessities
  • Exercise
  • Travelling to and from necessary work
  • Providing care to someone who is vulnerable
  • Fleeing harm – such as domestic abuse

The law stresses that if you’re on your own property, including a yard, garage or alley which is part of where you live, the police have no power to tell you what to do, unless you’re having a gathering that’s breaking the lockdown.

In Northern Ireland, groups of up to six people who do not share a household can meet outdoors under a relaxation of the law.

In Scotland and Wales, the law now allows “two households” to meet outside but doesn’t specify numbers. However Scottish guidance is to keep it to maximum of eight people.

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