Fed-up police take more extreme measures to ensure the public follow lockdown rules 

Derbyshire Police posted drone footage on social media to shame hikers and dog walkers making "non-essential" trips to the Peak District

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It was a surveillance operation to make the CIA or MI6 proud. A high-tech police drone hovered above the mountainside, spying on a couple, suspiciously alone and surrounded by wilderness.

But the two people caught in the police sting were not international terrorists, significant figures in an espionage ring or drug-dealing masterminds.

They were worse than that. They were "walkers".

To be precise, they were "dog walkers". 

Derbyshire Police released footage taken by a force drone flying over Curbar Edge, a beauty spot in the heart of the Peak District. There were the hikers in full walking gear - boots, coats and even sun hats - and accompanied by what appeared to be, from the high-up vantage point of the drone, a golden labrador.

The police were appalled. This was a clear flouting of the strict "social distancing" lockdown imposed by Downing Street only days earlier.

The force was so enraged, so concerned it posted a video on Twitter showing the couple on their hike with the accompanying caption: "Walking your dog in the Peak District. Not essential."

As the couple walked on, the drone picked up a lone rambler heading in their direction. "Going for a walk miles from home. Not essential,” flashed up the accompanying caption.

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Up and down the country, regional police forces, normally concerned with less-trivial crimes such as murders, muggings and sexual violence, have found themselves trying to enforce new rules to curb the spread of coronavirus, an invisible killer. 

A children's platground in north London was shut to the public due to the contamination risk posed by the coronavirus outbreak Credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Suddenly, exercising more than once a day is against the rules - so, too, gatherings of more than two people (unless all from the same household). Police have been the authority to issue fines, as well as additional powers to arrest anyone making non-essential journeys by car. 

Some forces - Derbyshire definitely being one of them - concluded that the law is there to be upheld. At Whitley Bay, Northumbria Police broke up a game of football between bored youths who are no longer allowed to go to school. And Victoria Park, a huge green space in east London, was closed by the local council in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police due to a "significant number of visitors… gathering in groups, holding picnics, drinking, sunbathing and playing football and team sports".

North Yorkshire Police and Devon and Cornwall Police deployed unannounced checkpoints to stop vehicles, demanding that drivers explain where they are going and why before allowing them to continue.

Police in North Yorkshire have set up a checkpoint to ensure motorists and their passengers are complying with lockdown rules Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

In the West Midlands, police urged the public to call them on 101 if they spotted "large numbers of people congregating".

Police patrols also stopped and questioned train passengers including in Swansea and in London to make sure travel was "essential" and that people were maintaining two-metre social distancing. 

Derbyshire Police's drone footage showed anything but crowds, although the force remained indignant. It ran number plate checks of cars parked at the beauty spot to see where they had come from.

"Some number plates were coming back to keepers in Sheffield, so we know that people are travelling to visit these areas," the force said in a message on Twitter, adding: "Daily exercise should be taken locally to your home. Under government guidance all travel is limited to essential travel only."

The drone captured another couple taking a selfie with the view in the background."Going out of your way for an Instagram snap. Not essential," was the force’s edict.

In a statement, Derbyshire was bullish in the face of growing criticism. "We understand that people will have differing views about this post, however, we will not be apologetic for using any legal and appropriate methods to keep people safe.

"Whilst the Government has advised to take one form of exercise a day, it is not appropriate to be getting in your car and travelling to take this exercise, particularly to a location, such as the Peak District that in normal times can become busy.

"These are all lovely things to do but not in the middle of a pandemic."

A giant screen over the A57 in Manchester reminded drivers not to make unnecessary journeys Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Not everyone was impressed. The rules are confusing for the public, not least because the Government has allowed non-essential workers to go to work, including builders on construction sites, where keeping two metres apart is widely acknowledged as problematic.

"This is the worst kind of nanny policing and I say that as a former colleague," said one Twitter response, adding: "Taking a walk by yourself in the middle of nowhere seems the epitome of social distancing. Yet the building site next to me, in the middle of London, building flats is essential?"

Another said: "I think you'd be better employed catching criminals and not on a jolly flying your drone catching people exercising in a remote area. Remember you police by consent."

Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties group, said: "Members of the public must follow the Government's advice to protect themselves and others. It's understandable why police are dispersing parties and barbecues but demanding drivers give journey details at road checkpoints is over the top."

At a House of Commons committee hearing yesterday, Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, questioned the new laws and their enforcement. "If people aren't lucky enough to live around the corner from a park or have their own garden, if they are going to do this exercise in the open air, they are going to want to get on the public transport network or get in their car to go to somewhere where they can exercise," she said. 

Northamptonshire's Chief Constable, Nick Adderley, told The Telegraph he would begin mounting roadblocks "if it gets to the stage where we have to be more robust in challenging people’s movements".

On his way to work yesterday morning, the most senior police officer in that region of England spotted a motorist driving erratically - only to discover that he was on his way to a family gathering elsewhere in the county. The chief constable said he had "left him in no doubt" he should not attend and said he was planning "a fly past" of the man’s house to check that his car was still there.

Northumberland, like many other forces, has received countless tip-offs, including one from a member of the public who rang the police to say his neighbour was about to go on his second run of the day. The man demanded officers come and arrest the neighbour. Police on that occasion declined to do so.

And in Cumbria, the local force stopped caravans and campervans from entering the Lake District, after officers were told to stop and question anyone seen driving one in the area. 

Those suspected of being there on holiday were being asked to return home and threatened with a fine if they refuse to heed the instruction.