Plans to ease lockdown restrictions will cause “chaos” if police are forced to deal with new gaps between government guidance and the law, it has been warned.
All but the most senior national leaders have been left in the dark about changes to be announced by the prime minister on Sunday.
He is expected to change government guidance, but The Independent understands the coronavirus laws that allow police to enforce restrictions will not immediately be updated.
Any gap creates the risk that members of the public could commit crimes by following the new official instructions, such as by gathering in groups of more than two or being outside without “reasonable excuse”.
Senior police officers were angered by media reports of plans to relax some rules on Monday, which prompted a flurry of messages urging people to abide by restrictions over the bank holiday weekend.
The president of the Police Superintendents’ Association (PSA) said the government needed to “learn the lessons of what went wrong when the regulations were brought in” at the start of lockdown.
“The clarity and consistency of the message is very important for both the police and the public,” Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths told The Independent.
“If there are changes, we need to have as much opportunity as possible to have a really strong communication strategy.
“We’re hopeful that there won’t be any instantaneous changes on Sunday evening, because that would cause some challenges for us.”
The government advice is currently stricter than the Health Protection Regulations that allow police to enforce the lockdown.
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While people are advised to exercise outside only once a day, for example, there is no legal limit to the number of excursions anywhere — apart from in Wales, which is changing this law on 11 May.
Ministers have talked of “essential travel”, but it is not defined by the law, and police guidance has made clear that people are able to drive into the countryside or have picnics.
Widespread confusion over the differences was partly blamed for initial over-enforcement by police,%20
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Ch Supt Griffiths said enforcement had become more “calm and consistent” following updated guidance for officers, but added: “If there’s a change in position from the government that’s where we start to get inconsistency and risk of the public not understanding what they need to do.”
During Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, Boris Johnson told MPs he wanted to “get going with some of these measures on Monday”.
Media reports that the changes would include allowing social gatherings and day trips forced the foreign secretary to play down the possibilities.
“Any changes in the short term will be modest, small, incremental and very carefully monitored,” Dominic Raab told the Downing Street press conference on Thursday.
Thomas Sherrington, a barrister who specialises in crime and regulatory work, told The Independent that the government could change the law to bring it in line with new guidance without parliament’s approval.
“But with the way it’s been going so far, I wouldn’t expect anything other than chaos,” he added.
“If they do what they’ve been doing this entire time in terms of not giving clear instructions as to what you can and can’t do, we’re going to have the same problems multiplied.”
Several police forces issued messages telling people to continue abiding by the existing restrictions over the VE Day bank holiday weekend.
Assistant Chief Constable Julie Wvendth, of Norfolk Constabulary, acknowledged “much speculation of what lockdown will look like as we await the prime minister’s announcement on Sunday”.
“No one knows for certain at this time what he will say,” she added. “We will all be watching closely and will then assess and consider any implications for our organisation and communities.”
The chief constable of Wiltshire Police, Kier Pritchard, urged people to disregard media reports, adding: “It is important to note that the government restrictions around social distancing remain in place at this time further to any official announcement which states otherwise.”
Lancashire Police issued a blunt message telling the public: “Our advice has not changed. The legislation has not changed.”
In Cumbria, Assistant Chief Constable Andrew Slattery urged people not to become complacent and risk a second wave of infection.
“The danger has not passed,” he said. “There are still people suffering and dying in our hospitals and care homes.”
Several police forces have monitored increases in foot and road traffic in recent weeks, and worry that the falling daily death count and long lockdown — combined with warm weather — will encourage more people to violate the lockdown.
More than 9,000 fines have been issued under the Health Protection Regulations by police in England and Wales, and forces have vowed to continue enforcing the law where necessary.
But confusion over the law continues to play out in Britain’s courts, following several miscarriages of justice.
The Independent has recorded several cases in recent days where coronavirus legislation appears to have been misused.
On Wednesday, a man appeared at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court accused of violating the Welsh regulations — over an incident in London.
A woman appeared at the same court accused of making a “non-essential journey away from [her] property in a time of pandemic” in violation of the Coronavirus Act 2020.
But that law does not prohibit non-essential travel, and only applies to potentially infectious people.
On Thursday, an alleged burglar appeared at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court charged under the Coronavirus Act for “being out of [his] dwelling in defiance of the instruction to stay home without a reasonable excuse”, which is not illegal under that law.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is currently reviewing all charges brought under both the Coronavirus Act and Health Protection Regulations.
The unprecedented step was taken after several miscarriages of justice were highlighted by the media, including a case that saw a woman wrongly fined £660 after “loitering” at a railway station.
A CPS spokesperson said: “Unlawful charges are being withdrawn by prosecutors in court and we are asking for any wrongful convictions to be overturned.”