The Home Secretary delivered a rebuke to the police after a senior officer suggested that his force would start checking shoppers’ supermarket trolleys to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.
Priti Patel said the threat by Nick Adderley, Northamptonshire’s chief constable, was “not appropriate” as she maintained policing during the Easter Bank holiday weekend should not be “heavy-handed.”
She also rejected any further toughening of the lockdown conditions as allegedly mooted by some police chiefs, saying: “Absolutely not.”
Mr Adderley also raised the prospect of his force mounting roadblocks to stop vehicles they believed were flouting the rules.
But on Thursday night Ms Patel said: “That’s not appropriate. Let me be clear about that. I work with the police and its leadership every single day of the week. That is not the guidance. That is not down to the measures we have been adopting thus far.
“What we should just say about this weekend is that the weather is going to be good – it is Easter. We really all do need to take responsibility. It is not about overreach, it’s absolutely not about overreach and it is wrong.”
Her comments come ahead of a critical Easter bank holiday weekend when police plan extra patrols, road checks to turn back visitors to holiday resorts and “closures” of rural and beach beauty spots.
The policing of the lockdown has been a contentious issue since the new laws were brought in. Forces have been criticised for putting up drones to spot dog walkers, mounting road checks on motorists, taping off park benches and warning runners for sitting down.
Ministers will take a final decision next week on extending the lockdown for at least three weeks, but Dominic Raab, deputising for Boris Johnson, told yesterday’s press conference that it was too early to ease the measures as the hospital death toll rose by 881.
Mr Adderley had declared yesterday morning that the “three-week grace period” for the public was over and his officers would start fining and arresting those who continued to flout the new lockdown laws.
He said he was targeting a “hardcore” refusing to obey the rules and warned: “If things don’t improve, and we don’t get the compliance we would expect, then the next stage will be road blocks and it will be stopping people to ask why they are going, where they’re going.
“This is about reasonableness and if people are not reasonable in terms of the journeys and the trips they are taking, they are going to fall foul of the law.
“We will not, at this stage, be setting up roadblocks. We will not, at this stage, start to marshal supermarkets and check the items in baskets and trolleys to see whether it’s a legitimate, necessary item. But be under no illusion if people do not heed the warnings we will start to do that.”
He added: “These are not guidelines anymore. This is the law. We’ve had examples of people sunbathing in the park, having barbecues in the park, we’ve had large gatherings of family members.
“To those people, I am saying ‘your time is up’.”
Other forces including Devon and Cornwall and Cumbria are threatening to fine would-be Easter holidaymakers and turn them back, while police declared Dorset, North Wales and North Yorkshire’s coasts “closed” to visitors.
Greater Manchester Police revealed that last weekend it had broken up 494 house parties, 166 street parties, 122 group gatherings for sporting activities and 173 gatherings in parks.
Police forces across the country plan extra patrols in parks, beaches and beauty spots as well as roads and rail stations leading to holiday destinations. Sunbathers and picnickers will be dispersed and face fines if they refuse.
Ms Patel urged second homeowners and tourists not to travel to beauty spots but suggested police taping off park benches might be a step too far.
“I’ll be very candid. Not everybody’s going to get this right and it has taken a couple of weeks for these measures to bed in because this has been unprecedented,” she said.
“The police have got these new powers that they are working with right now. We want our public places to be respected and utilised in the right way. We want people to make the most of at least getting out in the right kind of way, practicing social distancing.
“But this is not about heavy-handed law enforcement. I really must emphasise that. There’s a balance to this. I do pay credit to the police because these are extraordinary times. They exercise their judgment.
“Policing by consent means that officers, based on the guidance, exercise their judgment on the scenarios and the situations and the circumstances they are in.
“But the fact of the matter is, if you are having a garden party or a house party, or you’re involved in a mass gathering in a public place, don’t be surprised if the police do come up to you and ask you to stop doing that.”
On Thursday night Mr Adderley suggested there had been “confusion” over what he meant: “What I was trying to refer to was we may get to a stage where the purposes of somebody’s journey may be questioned by an officer, not searching trolleys and baskets.”
He said his officers would apply common sense and discretion but said police had powers under anti-social behaviour and public order laws to arrest those who refused to go home after being sanctioned and continued to sunbathe or gather in groups.
“If people continue to flout the law, they will be fined and if appropriate they will be arrested,” he said. “If they refuse and continue to refuse to go home, there are other powers which could mean those individuals get arrested and they will end up with a criminal record which is not worth it.”
His tougher approach was backed by John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, who said: “People are saying we are in a lockdown. We are not.
“A proper lockdown would require people to have proof for coming out of their houses. We don’t want to go down that route but if we do, then the people to blame are those foolish idiots who flouted the rules.”
Meanwhile hospital bosses warned people not to put unnecessary pressure on the NHS by flouting lockdown laws and going out over the bank holiday weekend.
Dr David Rosser, chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham, said he feared people would be “falsely reassured” by the effectiveness of measures and that hospitals could end up “reaping the consequences of that”.