So we’re now three weeks into our coronavirus lockdown and we’ve had a glimpse of what a very British police state might look like. The picture that has emerged is one as comical as it is terrifying.
From the off, it seemed many police officers had not bothered to read or even tried to get the gist of the new laws and regulations they were supposed to be enforcing, under both the Coronavirus Act and the Health Protection Regulations – later brought in to empower police to enforce the lockdown.
Instead, police across the country have confused government guidance with actual law. People buying so-called ‘non-essential items’ seems to be a particular obsession. Gloucestershire police have been carrying out checks at retail parks and issuing lists of apparently forbidden purchases, including Easter eggs, scratch cards and bamboo fencing. Meanwhile, the Twitter account for Cambridge police expressed one officer’s pleasure in patrolling a Tesco and finding the ‘non-essential aisles’ empty.
This is all despite the fact that it is not actually illegal to buy so-called non-essential items – nor, while we’re here, is it illegal to go for a second jog or drive somewhere in order to take your exercise. The government would just rather you didn't. But as Lord Sumption has pointed out, the police exist to enforce the law, not the preferences of ministers.
Initial suggestions that such over-reaches were the work of a few rogue or poorly-briefed officers was somewhat undermined when Nick Adderley, chief of Northamptonshire police, gave a press conference in which he said that his officers would have to start checking trolleys if people continued to flout the ‘rules’. He later rowed back on his comments.
The absurd exploits of Britain’s corona cops has become a running joke on social media in recent weeks. So much so it’s easy to forget that there are law-abiding citizens on the receiving end of all this. But you don’t have to look far for more self-evidently sinister examples.
Manchester police, for instance, have been forced to apologise after an officer was filmed threatening to pepper spray and then handcuffing a man who was running errands for his vulnerable mother. The officer even said ‘you’ll be next’ at a woman who shouted at him for his excessive treatment of the innocent gentleman, who was later ‘de-arrested’. An investigation into the officer’s conduct is underway.
Elsewhere, police officers have been harassing journalists for doing their jobs. In Finsbury Park in London last week, writer Michael Segalov was surrounded by police, threatened with a fine and told to go home when he was spotted filming a woman being escorted to a police van. One even barked ‘you’re killing people’ at Segalov.
None of this is to say that all police are power-mad people desperate to bark orders and push people around. But some of them are. And we have handed them all remarkable powers that, even when stuck to by the letter, give them broad scope to act. As one legal writer argues, under the new regulations failing to comply with an order to go home can be an offence even if you were doing nothing wrong at the time the police issue it.
Times of crisis do sometimes call for extraordinary measures. But we still need to maintain constant vigilance against any mission creep and to scrutinise these new powers and the way in which they are being used. Because when it comes to Britain’s corona cops – for all the absurd images of them busting people for illicit Easter egg purchases and scrambling drones over the Peaks – the joke really isn’t funny anymore.