One of Britain’s most senior police officers has told colleagues their handling of the coronavirus crisis will be remembered for generations and urged the public not to “judge too harshly” following growing criticism of officers’ tactics.

Writing for The Telegraph, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said officers must preserve “the trust and confidence of the public” and maintain the tradition of “policing by consent” amid complaints about the “overzealous” enforcement of social distancing regulations.

In a series of incidents over the weekend, police forces have fined individuals £60 for buying “non-essential” goods from shops and going for a drive “due to boredom”.

Smaller shops claim to have been told that selling Easter eggs and hot cross buns goes against new guidance because they do not qualify as essential items.

Assistant Commissioner Basu, the head of counter-terror policing in the UK, said “not every police response will be sure-footed” and added that “we should not judge too harshly” the use of powers he “never imagined a British police officer would be asked to use”.

He said: “Everyone in policing is acutely aware that how we police this pandemic will be remembered for many years to come.”

In what will be seen as a tacit appeal to colleagues, he urged forces to heed calls by two of Britain’s most senior officers, Dame Cressida Dick and Martin Hewitt, that persuading and educating the public should be the primary goal, rather than resorting to enforcement.

“Preserving the trust and confidence of the public by policing by consent is our mantra, and has been since 1829. There will be a period of readjustment to our new responsibilities,” Assistant Commissioner Basu said.

His comments came as Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said he fully supported the police.

The Government also issued new figures showing that the lockdown was working in the fight against the spread of the virus. Train journeys, hospital admissions and new infections are falling or stabilising, the figures reveal.

But others have criticised the police for their approach towards those seen to be breaking the lockdown. Lord Sumption, a former justice of the Supreme Court, accused one force of “disgraceful” behaviour akin to a “police state” and acting like “glorified school prefects” in enforcing the Government’s social distancing regulations.

“The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedoms, it isn’t when tyrants take it away, it is when people willingly surrender their freedom against some external threat – and the threat is usually a real threat, but usually exaggerated. That is what I fear we are seeing now,” he said.

Citing Derbyshire Police’s use of drones and road checks to stop walkers and people driving to take exercise, Lord Sumption said Britain’s police were traditionally “citizens in uniform”, not “members of a disciplined hierarchy operating at the Government’s command”.

“I have to say the behaviour of the Derbyshire Police in trying to shame people by using their undoubted right to travel to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the fells so people don’t want to go there is frankly disgraceful,” he said.

“This is what a police state is like. It is a state where governments can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.

“I have to say that most police forces have behaved in a thoroughly sensible and moderate fashion, but Derbyshire Police have shamed our policing traditions.

“There is a natural tendency, of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniforms to glorified school prefects. I think it’s really sad that Derbyshire Police have failed to resist that.”

On Monday, the Association of Convenience Stores reported police going through customers’ baskets to remove “non-essential items” in pharmacies, and Easter Eggs and hot cross buns being banned from sale even though regulations allow such essential stores to remain open.

Police in Warrington, Cheshire, faced a backlash after they disclosed they had summonsed “multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items”. Officers from the same force also barred a man from exercising his dog alone in his own private field because it was five minutes away from his home.

The Metropolitan Police allegedly told a jogger not to sit down on a park bench during a run, while police and the Government said fishing was not allowed because it did not count as exercise.

Government rules say people can only go out to shop for basic necessities “as infrequently as possible”, to have exercise once a day, alone or with members of their household and near their home, to meet a medical need and to travel to work if they cannot work at home.

However, data gathered by The Telegraph on Monday showed continued apparent confusion and wide variations in interpretations of the regulations by forces, with Lancashire fining 123 people, Scotland 25 and Cleveland 16 against none by forces like Leicestershire, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire.

Despite rules allowing separated couples to share custody, a woman said she had been told not to travel from Cambridge to meet her ex-husband and child halfway from his home in Devon. 

In Greater Manchester, key supermarket workers on their way to a night shift were sent home by police.

While some forces have used roadside checks for drivers, Dame Cressida, the Met Commissioner, said she had told officers not to use roadblocks or routinely stop drivers and to use enforcement powers only as a last resort.

“We are all getting used to the new restrictions and I’ve been very clear that, in the first instance, I want my officers to be engaging with people, talking to people, encouraging them to comply,” she said.

“Explaining, of course, if they don’t understand – already we have had examples of people who simply hadn’t quite heard all the messages – and, only as a very last resort with the current restrictions, using firm direction or even enforcement.”

At Monday’s daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Raab said some common sense was needed in the approach but added: “On the other hand, let’s also bear in mind the number one message which the police are rightly trying to convey. My view is that people need to find the guidance, not just the letter but also to the spirit.

“That is the way we tackle this challenge and get through it quicker, and as quickly as possible, so I fully support the police in what they’re trying to achieve.”  

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