What the police are getting wrong about the coronavirus regulations

31st March 2020

There appears to be two things the police are getting wrong about the new Coronavirus regulations.

One of these is a broad point about the purpose of the Regulations, and the other is a legal point about the “reasonable excuses” to the restrictions on movement under Regulation 6.


The Regulations are made under public health legislation, and not public order legislation, and this distinction is important.

The Regulations are for the statutory purpose of “preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination” (section 45C(1) of the Public Health Act 1984).

The Regulations are thereby not rules on public order as ends in themselves, but as means to an end – with that end being dealing with a contagious disease.

The current coronavirus emergency justifies emergency legislation, but the ultimate job of the legislation is to protect public health.

If the conduct of police – or of their social media accounts – discredits the emergency public health legislation, then the statutory purpose of the legislation will be frustrated.

So it is appropriate for some police actions under the Regulations, and some of their public statements, to be challenged, and even derided.

Such excesses need to be firmly checked, so as to ensure that the overall police response remains credible.

To do this is not to place civil liberties above public health – indeed, almost every civil liberty can be qualified and limited at a time of a genuine national emergency.

It is instead to ensure that public health legislation achieves its purpose.

Just as it takes one idiot to pass on the virus, it can take just one idiot police officer (or police social media manager) to discredit the laws necessary to combat the spread of the virus.

There needs to be self-restraint by both those being policed and those policing them.


The other thing the police seem to misapprehending is the scope of the offence created under Regulation 6.

The offence expressly applies when “one leave[s] the place” where they are living, without reasonable excuse.

The offence does not expressly apply if, once you have left that place with a reasonable excuse, the reasonable excuse somehow is no longer in place.

Consider two plausible scenarios:

Person A leaves to obtain basic necessities but the shop is bare of basic necessities, and the person buys a non-essential item instead, or buys nothing at all.

Person B leaves the house to exercise but, having exercised, that person decides to relax alone in an empty field to enjoy sunlight.

On the letter of Regulation 6, neither person is committing an offence under Regulation 6(1), as both left the place where they are living with a reasonable excuse.

It may well be that, in the event a police officer directs them to go home then non-compliance with that direction would become an offence under under Regulation 8(3) and 9(3).

But at least that person has an opportunity of escaping criminal liability by either providing a reasonable excuse or (simply) complying with the direction.

What is not the case is that a person outside of where they live without a reasonable excuse is committing an offence, if they left that place with a reasonable excuse.

Some may say that it is somehow implicit in the Regulation 6(1) offence that if a person ceases to have a reasonable excuse whilst out then that person is committing an offence.

To this contention there are two responses.

First, criminal law has to be exact, so that a person potentially affected can regulate their conduct accordingly.

Second, the drafters of the Regulations could have (easily) made it an offence to be outside the home without a reasonable excuse, but they chose not to do so.

The criminal law is what the law says, not what one thinks the law should be.


Overall the police have been placed into the position where they have wide discretion under vague law, and the police in turn are interpreting the law even more widely.

But consent and cooperation is essential, and public health law is not about imposing public order as an end in itself.

And as examples of policing in Northern Ireland and in the inner cities show, policing needs to be credible and fair to be effective.

This is because disrespect for the police and the law, like a virus, can quickly be contagious.

And at a time like this, such a contagion can be deadly.


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7 thoughts on “What the police are getting wrong about the coronavirus regulations”

  1. The impression I have is that the Kent Police in and around Canterbury are being careful and considerate and are not seeking to do more than (1) enforce the letter of the law and (2) advise where that might be helpful. There seems to be no attempt to prevent anyone using their car to go to a place where they can exercise without coming close to others – the footpaths and pavements on routes around the cathedral city (and this applies to the neighbouring towns of Whitstable and Herne Bay) are narrow. I get a similar impression of most other areas from friends I have spoken to on the phone. However media reports suggest that there are significant variations in some areas.

    The structure of policing is designed to allow for a county or multi-county police force to decide on the appropriate way of enforcement as well as local priorities. If the introduction of elected Police Commissioners had commanded greater voter engagement then it might have provided a useful way of maintaining public support today as a well established commissioner should be able to defend an approach which differs from the overall pattern. It is perhaps possible – especially if the shut down continues for months – that we will see greater public engagement over the style of policing and this manifesting itself in much more interest in the next round of elections of Police Commissioners.

  2. Interesting. It is however with observing that it only takes one police patrol to get it wrong for the press to report something as if all are doing it as matter of official policy.

    Great blog, keep them coming.

  3. We don’t elect police commissioners. Police Commissioner is a rank similar to Chief Constable, usually in metropolitan forces. We elect Police and Crime Commissioners whose role is very different and who are not police officers.

  4. The good will of the public is fragile. Sensitive and fair policing is the key as you have pointed out to prevent brawls, unnecessary prosecutions or riots. Both past successful and inflammatory management of tinder box situations should act as a reminder for policing the public in the light of the extended Public Health/Coranavirus legislation.

    Always enjoy your writings and if l have read correctly then l can buy Easter Eggs tomorrow with my milk with little fear.

  5. An interesting point that has been brought to my attention today is that it appears the regulations impose no legal duty to explain oneself whilst outside of one’s home. Whether this is implicit within the need to have a reasonable excuse when leaving one’s home or not is not something upon which I feel qualified to comment. It does, however, appear to me that if there is such an obligation it should be specified, such as in the case of the obligation to provides one’s name and address to a constable under S. 165 of the Road Traffic Act. It is a point I intend to do some research on.

  6. Taking up Ross Carlin’s point, I was dismayed to hear Matthew d’Ancona saying on the radio this morning that those of us leaving our homes are obliged to prove that they have “a reasonable excuse”. If this were true, it would surely undermine the concepts of “innocent until proved guilty” and “proving something beyond reasonable doubt”. Could David Allen Green (to whom thanks for this excellent blog) confirm that this new, draconian law hasn’t dispensed with these vital principles?

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