Police officers are to "persuade, cajole, negotiate and advise" the public to follow the UK's coronavirus lockdown restrictions, with police leaders saying they did not want to be forced to take more draconian measures.
Hundreds of thousands of people continued to travel to work on Tuesday with the blessing of the Government, as Downing Street said construction work could carry on despite the restrictions on movement announced by the Prime Minister on Monday.
This provoked a row with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who said more workers should be staying at home and insisted the Tube – which was crowded during rush hour – could not run more services.
From Thursday, new laws will give police the power to fine people caught outside their homes in groups of more than two. Guidance issued before the legislation takes effect is expected to urge officers to "persuade, cajole, negotiate and advise” people to disperse before they issue £30 penalty notices.
The emergency legislation allows for unlimited fines to be imposed by magistrates' courts if people break the rules on public gatherings, The Telegraph understands.
Metropolitan police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said that, once the new legislation is in place, "my view is that my officers will just carry on talking to people and advising people".
She added: "The vast majority of people want to comply with the law, the vast majority of people want to keep their society safe."
Writing in Wednesday’s Telegraph, , John Apter, the chair of the Police Federation, said this strategy can work with the support of the public. However, he added that if it fails there would be no option but for the Government to give police European-style powers to stop people leaving their homes without permission or a legitimate reason, despite these measures not being wanted by the public, police or the Government.
"People are describing these measures as a lockdown. They are not – they are heavy restrictions. A lockdown means you don't leave your house without authority, roadblocks, etcetera," he said.
"That's why the public must adhere to these instructions. If not, the Government will have to take it to a next level which nobody wants."
Police Scotland's chief constable has warned that his officers will not hesitate to use the new powers to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.
"When the powers are enacted, we will have no hesitation in using those powers if people continue to defy what is very, very clear advice," chief constable Iain Livingstone told BBC Good Morning Scotland.
Downing Street confirmed that anyone who fails to pay a fine "could be subject to criminal proceedings and a criminal conviction".
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "If further steps are recommended in order to further contain the spread of this virus, then we are not going to rule anything out."
This could mean extra powers including compelling the public to answer questions about why they were on a street, to disperse gatherings on the grounds of public protection against the virus and to mount roadblocks, which currently need to be signed by a chief officer, according to police sources.
It came as:
- Work began on a 4,000-bed temporary hospital in the ExCel Centre in London to treat coronavirus patients, which will open next week;
- Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, called for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS with tasks including delivering medicines to the most vulnerable;
- The coronavirus death toll jumped by 87, its biggest daily rise, to 422, with 8,077 cases. Almost a quarter of the latest deaths – 21 – were at a single NHS trust in London;
- Tokyo announced that it would be postponing the 2020 Olympics for a year
Legislation giving police powers to fine groups will be introduced in Parliament on Wednesday. People who flout the new rules will get a criminal record and those who fail to pay the £30 fine can be prosecuted in court. Anyone who refuses to give their details could be arrested.
In anticipation of the new law, police started dispersing gatherings in London, Manchester and the West Midlands, where officers in Coventry had to break up a barbeque with more than 20 people enjoying the sunshine, posting pictures of the cleared yard on Twitter.
Amid concern that the Prime Minister's instructions were being ignored, Mr Hancock reinforced the message on Tuesday, saying "these steps are not requests – they are rules".
Police in Nottinghamshire and Dorset began stopping vehicles to check where occupants were going and advise them on whether they should have been out. Northamptonshire Police said it would be using drones to monitor for public gatherings.
On Tuesday night, 500 British Transport Police officers were deployed across the rail network to remind the public of the need to stay at home unless journeys were essential.
Forces also reported being inundated with 999 calls, either from people confused by the rules and asking questions about what movements were permitted or from residents phoning police to alert them to neighbours breaching the gathering rules.
West Midlands police had to issue a second appeal to the public to stop ringing about staying at home, urging those who wished to report people for gathering in groups to call 101.
Sir Peter Fahy, the former Greater Manchester chief constable, warned that police were "already very stretched", with one in 10 officers already self-isolating or off sick and that a "huge amount of clarification" of the rules was needed if they were to be policed effectively.
"So, really, there is no way that this can be achieved through enforcement alone. It will have to be that the public hugely accept it and the Government continues to issue clarification and reinforces the message," he said.
"It feels like, in the next few days, we will need an implementation period – but the key thing is that the public accept that this is absolutely vital if lives are to be saved."
One senior policing figure warned that the new measures could erode the good relationship that existed between officers and the British public.
"One of the big concerns is that the policing by consent model, which defines our system, is going to be severely tested by this. In other European countries, the police are an arm of the state, but that is not how things work here," he said.
"We want to do the right thing, but our role has to be clear and understood by everyone, and at the moment it is not. There is also real concern over resources. We are significantly stretched at the best of times, but we estimate we will lose around 30 percent of officers and staff through illness, self-isolation and looking after others."
Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), said people would initially be asked to disperse and told why, but "ultimately, if people refuse to abide by the rules we will need to enforce them."
Asked whether he would like the measures go further, Ken Marsh, chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said it could "absolutely become more draconian towards the public" if advice was ignored. "Hopefully from this day, well, if they don't listen then there will be tougher measures," he said.