This is an exceptionally difficult time for those working in the emergency services. They are having to respond to situations they never expected to be involved with, often risking being infected with coronavirus themselves. That much is true. What is also true is that this crisis has brought out an interfering tendency in some people which goes along the lines of neighbours calling the police to demand they arrest someone who appears to be going out for a 'second run', or sitting on Twitter waiting to pounce on someone who appears to have flouted the rules by buying chocolate bars.
This second feature of the coronavirus pandemic is annoying enough when it is coming from some retired bloke called Neil who was using his spare time to tell strangers they were in some way Doing It Wrong long before things started to go badly wrong in Wuhan. It's more of a problem when the people sitting on Twitter waiting to pounce are in fact working for the police.
Over the past few days, we've seen Derbyshire Police send up a drone to film people who were walking alone in the Peak District, Warrington Police announce that they'd sent a summons to 'multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items', the Met in Raynes Park declare that they have been telling off people who were sitting down outside, and Denton Police telling their followers (in a now-deleted tweet) that 'exercise is limited to around an hour per day'. There are also the small shopowners who have been told either by the police or local authority officials that they shouldn't be selling Easter eggs as they are 'non-essential items'.
The problem with all of these tweets and instructions is that they go much further than the government regulations restricting movement. So on exercise, the regulations merely state that a 'reasonable excuse' for leaving the house is 'to take exercise either alone or with members of their household'. The government guidance elaborates on this, saying 'you can also go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others'. Nowhere is there a time limit, a ban on sitting on a bench, or indeed someone driving a short distance to walk their dog in a quieter place.
Similarly, the 'non-essential items' line isn't anywhere in the regulations. The 'reasonable excuse' that covers shopping merely states that someone can 'obtain basic supplies, including food and medical supplies for those in the same household [...] and supplies for the essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household'. Only certain shops may stay open because the regulations deem them to be supplying 'essential' services, including food markets, supermarkets, convenience stores and corner shops, as well as off licences and newsagents. There is no detail at all on what these shops should or shouldn't be selling to customers.
Now, the You're Doing It Wrong brigade on Twitter might well argue that as sitting on a park bench isn't exercise, and Easter eggs aren't essential, then people shouldn't feel entitled to either. There's a war on and every unnecessary trip out of the house that puts you in contact with other people is potentially infecting them, or you. And there may well be a case for that. It's just that the case hasn't been made sufficiently for it to turn up in regulations.
Perhaps one reason that the case for banning sitting on park benches and buying Easter eggs hasn't yet been made is that some people do need to sit down when out for their daily exercise. In normal times, elderly people and those with mobility problems find it hard enough to get out into the great outdoors because there are few benches for them to sit on in the course of a walk.
I have personally become rather more alive to the importance of benches in the past few months. A year ago today, I was completing a 21-mile training run for the London Marathon and feeling very smug about my physical ability. Now, I am heavily pregnant and despite doing everything I can to stay fit while carrying a growing passenger, I do have to sit down when I'm out on my daily exercise. I hope that in a few months, I'll be one of those people able to zip around without even noticing the benches, but for many people, a place to sit is an essential part of their exercise. It's also as possible to observe social distancing on a bench as it is while walking.
Similarly, of course no-one needs Easter eggs to stay alive. But where do you draw the line? Is your child not allowed a birthday cake to cheer them up while cut off from their friends and wider family? What about a nice pudding? Or, if you're a millennial busy frittering away their money rather than saving for a house, a non-essential avocado? Why not only allow people a daily delivery of a meal replacement shake which, while dull as dishwater, contains all your essential nutrients? Some people might consider it totally unnecessary to allow licensed shops to sell bottles of beer and wine for people to drink at home, but then again, if we are to find ourselves abiding by necessary restrictions for months, then it's going to be a lot more bearable for a lot of people if they can eat nice food and enjoy a glass of wine while speaking to their friends over Zoom.
Perhaps the arguments for the above are wrong. Perhaps pregnant women and elderly people who need a sit down on their own in the fresh air should just stay in and stop inconveniencing everyone else. Perhaps we should only be eating gruel for the next few months. But these aren't currently government policy, and it's not the job of the police to create laws. They have an exceptionally difficult job to do at the moment, not least because some people are truly flouting the regulations and holding large parties, or coughing at emergency workers, or driving across the country with their wife in the boot of the car (yes, this happened).
Most police officers will be carrying out that exceptionally difficult job with the dedication and bravery that makes our system of policing by consent work well most of the time. And most of them would likely be deeply embarrassed by the colleagues who, either on Twitter or on the streets, seem to see this pandemic not as a challenge but an opportunity for a bizarre power trip involving Easter eggs.