The Police have not been given enough notice about changes in the law and Government guidance relating to Covid over the past year, and confusion has been added by ministers failing to differentiate between the two, according to Britain’s police regulator. A report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services says that “mistakes were made” by the police because of unclear messaging from the Government.
[Officers’ difficulty in enforcing the law was made difficult] by a widespread confusion in relation to the status of Government announcements and statements by ministers. Ministers asserting that their guidance – which had no higher status than requests – were in fact “instructions to the British people” inevitably confused people. In some cases, police officers misunderstood the distinction, and appeared to believe that ministerial instructions were equivalent to the criminal law.
For example, the two-metre distancing “rule” has only ever been in guidance (aside from some requirements on the hospitality sector such as licensed premises and restaurants). The request to “stay local” has never been a legal requirement. The suggested limits on the number of times a person could go out to exercise in a day and for how long were only ever in guidance, not regulations.
Some forces told us that they sought legal advice on the regulations so that they could produce clear guidance for their workforces. But the speed with which regulations were made and amended (usually by being added to) was great. And to many, the distinction between law and guidance remained uncertain.
In these circumstances, mistakes were made. During the initial lockdown, there was significant media coverage of what was often described as police overreach. High-profile examples included road checks to identify unnecessary journeys, drone surveillance of people in open and almost deserted places, and police action in relation to non-essential shopping and what was thought to be excessive exercise.
The exhortation only to take “essential journeys” was no more than guidance; it was not the law.
The report adds that the muddling up of the law with Government guidelines in these high-profile cases damaged public confidence in the police.
It is not the function of the police to treat Government guidance, however well-intentioned (as it undoubtedly was), as rules of the criminal law. Ministers may create criminal offences only if authorised by parliament to do so; they may not do so by the simple expedient of demanding action from a podium or behind a lectern.
And as difficulties arose and some well-publicised mistakes were made, public confidence in, and support for, the police were inevitably put at risk.
Worth reading in full.