Behind the scenes

Police struggled to ‘keep up’ with confusing Covid laws

Watchdog warns ministers that regulations are passed in Parliament rather than ‘from a podium’

UK police forces have “felt disadvantaged by a lack of notice and consultation” about Covid laws, according to inspectors. 

The newly published “Policing in the Pandemic” report, from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, says that some police chiefs first learned about last year’s law changes from the government’s daily televised briefing.

The police watchdog says “it was hard to keep up” with the regulations, which were amended and supplemented a “considerable number of times” as “lockdown restrictions were eased or strengthened, imposed, relaxed and re-imposed, in different parts of the country, for different periods and with differing intensities”.

And the “widespread confusion” was increased by ministers who issued “instructions to the British people” that in fact had “no higher status than requests”.  This led to operational difficulties and misunderstandings, with police officers believing ministerial instructions were equivalent to criminal law, the report says.

“Ministers may create criminal offences only if authorised by Parliament to do so; they may not do so by the simple expedient of demanding action from a podium or behind a lectern,” the watchdog adds.

The Daily Mirror recalls how Cabinet minister Michael Gove “suggested joggers should limit exercise to half an hour a day, but that was in neither guidance nor the law”.

As a result of the confusion, “mistakes were made”, says the report, which cites examples such as road checks to uncover unnecessary journeys, drone surveillance of open areas, and police action over “excessive exercise”.

However, the watchdog concludes that police “generally responded well” to the “exceptional circumstances” of the pandemic.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “Overall, the police rose to the challenge with dedication and commitment by taking immediate and decisive action to keep people safe and prevent crime, while also learning lessons from the rare occasions that they got it wrong.”

The Guardian reports that the findings, “from an inspection carried out between March and November last year, urged forces to immediately put in place policies to address” any problems.

National Police Chiefs’ Council chair Martin Hewitt said the watchdog had recognised that the past 12 months had been “one of the biggest challenges to face modern policing, and that the service has stepped up and met that challenge head-on”.

“We haven’t always got things right straightaway, and we have sought throughout the pandemic to learn as we go and improve the service we provide,” he added.

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