Lockdown rule-breakers are more likely to be fined as Covid laws will be enforced “more quickly”, the UK’s most senior police officer has said.
Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said her officers have had to break up parties, despite London hospitals struggling to cope with rising patient numbers.
A minister confirmed her pledge that fines were “increasingly likely”.
Kit Malthouse said people have a “duty” to make this lockdown “the last one”.
“We are urging the small minority of people who aren’t taking this seriously to do so now, and [are illustrating] to them that if they don’t they are much more likely to get fined by the police,” Mr Malthouse, the policing minister, told BBC Breakfast.
“These current measures should in theory, if we all stick by them, be enough to drive the numbers down so that we can start to move through the gears of tiers from mid-February,” he added.
Asked if tighter restrictions were on the way –
something the health secretary has refused to rule out – Mr Malthouse said ministers were “on tenterhooks” watching the daily figures for Covid deaths, new cases and hospital admissions, as rules continue to be kept under review.
He said the government’s ramped-up efforts to give vulnerable people the coronavirus vaccine should help the UK to “get back to some sort of normality later this year”.
The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there was currently no expectation that Westminster will impose more extensive restrictions.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she discussed possible tighter restrictions with members of her cabinet on Tuesday morning.
The latest figures on Monday showed a further 529 people had died within 28 days of a positive test in the UK, while another 46,169 cases were reported.
There are also more than 32,200 people in hospital in the UK with coronavirus, data shows.
Dame Cressida told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme some 75 police officers are joining 185 firefighters in being trained to drive ambulances in the capital, as London hospitals struggle with soaring numbers of Covid patients.
And writing in the Times, she said her officers had found people hosting raves, house parties and basement gambling events, despite high rates of the virus and clear laws that ban social gatherings.
“It is preposterous to me that anyone could be unaware of our duty to do all we can to stop the spread of the virus,” she said, adding that people breaking Covid laws were “increasingly likely to face fines”.
Since March, some 32,000 penalties for breaching Covid laws have been issued in England and Wales – with a sharp rise in penalties during England’s November lockdown.
Almost 6,500 penalty tickets were handed out in the weeks up to Christmas as police began moving more quickly from “engage”, “explain” and “encourage” to the fourth “e” – “enforcement”.
Expect the rate of fines to continue upwards during January, given the scale of the emergency and the pressure from government on constabularies to enforce the law.
But there is also a tension here. Police chiefs have told their officers they will often have to use their own judgement because the list of “reasonable excuses” in the law for why someone can be outside is not fixed in stone.
There is a lot of wriggle room in the law to allow daily lives to continue.
While ministers, scientists and health experts are all hammering home the message that people should stay at home as much as possible, the law is more liberal – for instance, there is no restriction on exercise in England.
And that’s why some police officers believe they are stuck between a rock and a hard place as people who don’t want to be locked down find more and more creative ways to stretch the rules to breaking point.
Dame Cressida told the Today programme the move towards greater enforcement was “common sense” rather than a show of “dictatorial policing”.
She also said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cycle in east London at the weekend was “not against the law”, but added the “stay local” guidance on exercise for England could be made more clear.
Under Scotland’s lockdown restrictions, people must start and finish their exercise in the same place – and to do so, they may travel up to five miles from the boundary of their local authority area. People in Wales should start and finish exercising from their home, while those in Northern Ireland are advised not to go more than 10 miles from home when exercising.
Asked if she would like to see similar detail in England’s guidance, Dame Cressida said: “That is certainly something the government could consider.
“Anything that brings greater clarity, for officers and the public, in general, will be a good thing.”
Police chiefs have been under increasing pressure to enforce the lockdown laws – with a number of news reports about breaches of Covid rules in recent days.
In one case, two women were fined £200 each by Derbyshire Police when they drove five miles for a walk together – but the force has since withdrawn the penalties.
After that incident gained widespread media attention, the National Police Chiefs’ Council issued fresh guidance to officers.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, who will lead a coronavirus press conference later, has defended the way police have handled breaches, saying there is a need for “strong enforcement”.
England is currently under a national lockdown, meaning people must stay at home and can go out only for limited reasons such as food shopping, exercise, or work if they cannot do so from home.
Similar lockdown measures are in place across much of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – which are in charge of making their own coronavirus restrictions.
So far 2.3 million people in the UK have had a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, as part of the government’s plan to vaccinate tens of millions of people by the spring.
In her article, Dame Cressida said she was “delighted to hear” that a proposal to prioritise frontline officers to get vaccinated was being “actively discussed”, as the rate of officers self-isolating has risen.
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