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Coronavirus: What powers do the police have?

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Lockdown rules are changing across the UK.

But who is responsible for making sure people follow them?

Rules or guidelines?

Police have the biggest responsibility for enforcing coronavirus laws – the rules that everyone must follow. These differ across the UK’s four nations.

But not everything you are asked to do is a legal requirement.

Coronavirus guidance describes government recommendations to help control the virus. These are not backed by laws.

Ministers have sometimes used the word “rules” to refer to the law and sometimes the guidance.

Can I hold a party?

In England, the law allows you to meet in a group of up to 30 people outside, or at home.

Outside means any public place – including beaches, parks, streets and the countryside.

So, if you want to organise a picnic or garden party you can now invite 29 guests.

If you go above that number, the police can turn up and force people to leave. They could issue you with a penalty ticket.

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These start at £100 (or £50 if paid within 14 days), rising to £3,200 for six or more offences. In exceptional cases, the Crown Prosecution Service could take someone to court.

But, confusingly, the government wants people to do something different.

Its official guidance – not actually a legal obligation – says: “You should only be socialising in groups of up to two households (including your support bubble) indoors and outdoors or up to six people from different households when outdoors.”

The law in England now allows even bigger formally-organised gatherings, providing the people behind it can show they have a plan to minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Officers can turn up and inspect the organiser’s written plan. They can order people to leave if they decide there are genuine dangers.

Lockdown laws in the rest of the UK:

Public places like beaches could close

The law gets more complicated still.

In England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has an exceptional new power to completely close a specific public place.

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This could be used this summer to close beaches or beauty spots if there are concerns from local councils and police about crowds potentially spreading the virus.

If your favourite beach becomes what the law calls a “restricted area”, it would be a crime to go there.

Who can force gyms or nail bars to stay shut?

The final part of the revised law in England covers the shrinking list of businesses still closed.

These are places where there’s thought to be a risk of spreading from close contact – such as nightclubs, gyms, swimming pools and nail bars.

Police have the power to close these businesses.

However, in practice they’re leaving this to local authorities whose trading standards officers can also enforce the law.

What if pubs and cafes break the rules?

Pubs, restaurants, hotels and hair salons can now open in England – but they could still be forced to close.

That’s because they have a legal duty to keep their staff and customers safe.

The Health and Safety Executive oversees laws and guidance on a safe working environment. Like the police, it can enforce the law if it believes there is a danger – for instance in an overcrowded factory.

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When it comes to pubs, the police are likely to be the first to hear about an overcrowded pub. Many forces have been carrying out spot checks.

Businesses that are open must be able to show they have plans to reduce the risk of transmission – for instance by creating one-way systems around their premises.

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Image caption

Officers patrol a busy bar street in Soho

If a premises was the source of an outbreak, local public health directors can close it while the virus is tackled. This is a long-standing power that has been used to contain other diseases.

Local lockdowns

Leicester is subject to the first UK local lockdown.

Police can break up gatherings of more than six people – and residents aren’t allowed to stay away overnight, other than in the home of their bubble household.

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But the city isn’t actually walled in, legally speaking.

If a Leicester family fancies a clothes-shopping spree in Nottingham – because stores are still open there – there’s legally nothing to stop them.

Instead, the government hopes people’s sense of civic responsibility will see them follow guidance to stay at home.

Can police make me cover my face?

In England, it’s a legal requirement to cover the mouth and nose on public transport (with some exceptions for people who have good reason not to wear one).

If you refuse to wear a covering, a police officer, community support officer, or some transport workers can refuse to allow you to board a bus or a train – or direct you to leave.

Police officers and Transport for London staff can issue penalty tickets.

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