Public pressure has forced what is, at least, a partial retreat from the enthusiasm of a number of police forces for interpreting government guidance on what a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home as if this was written into law. This led to the setting up of roadblocks, stopping and questioning people and arbitrary decisions about whether exercise or shopping is essential or not that we have seen over the last few days.
A new briefing by the National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing, on the scope of emergency police powers, was published yesterday is available here. This is the slide that provides some clarification on the reasons for needing to leave home while restrictions on movement remain in place:
The Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, Andy Cooke, has insisted that this is “not the time to be criticising the Police for a small number of misinterpretations of the legislation and advice”. In response, Netpol has commented saying that without facing criticism, “there’s every likelihood the police would have allowed the “misinterpretations” to continue. Forcing public institutions to account for their actions is why public scrutiny exists”
As a result of public criticism over the use of emergency powers, Cheshire Police say they are now reviewing the cases of six people summonsed to court over alleged breaches of the legislation in Warrington.
However, police have continued to warn that the crackdown will continue across Lancashire
The Press Association has asked police forces in England and Wales how many fines have been issued and how many arrests made since the new regulations were introduced. Of the 43 forces contacted, around a quarter said they had not issued any fines or made any arrests so far. A similar amount refused to provide details.
Police in Lancashire has so far issued 123 fixed penalty notices to people breaking the government’s new rules, the largest recorded number in the country.
However, a woman arrested by British Transport Police at Newcastle Central station for refusing to explain to officers her reason for essential travel has been fined £660 by magistrates.
Meanwhile, Gracy May Bradley made a crucial point in an opinion piece in the Guardian, asking ‘Can people of colour trust the UK Covid-19 laws with the police’s track record?’ With the long history of police power being deployed as a disciplinary tool against them, she warns that ‘if communities of colour are left to bear the brunt of arbitrary policing, the damage done will last even when this crisis is over.’
The BBC, meanwhile, has highlighted proposals for a coronavirus app that alerts people if they have recently been in contact with someone testing positive for the virus. This idea creates some huge concerns about privacy and compulsion. One of the ethics specialists involved in a study by University of Oxford has said that “this is a really unusual situation where lives are at risk, so there is a case to be made to make at least some actions compulsory”.
However, there are already questions about the companies involved in using surveillance to track people who may become infected. Open Rights Group and Privacy International reacted to news that US surveillance company Palantir is in discussion with the NHS to “clean” and analyse bulk health data, including tracking of spare beds, ventilators and calls to 111. Palantir’s past work has involved tracking of migrants and provision of espionage tools.
- Big Brother Watch has announced it is publishing a monthly Emergency Powers & Civil Liberties Report for Members of Parliament, starting in April.
- GDPRHub has produced a listing of projects using personal data to combat the coronavirus.
- This COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker is an extremely important and useful project for journalists and scholars by @ICNLAlliance and others.
- Oonagh Ryder and Carl Cattermole of Novara Media’s Lockdown Podcast spoke to Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe about the new police powers that the Coronavirus Act 2020 has brought in.
- The Canary has published “Vital work is documenting one of the most chilling impacts of the coronavirus crisis”, an article on the creation of the ‘Policing the Corona State’ blog.