The predictions last week by senior police officers that more and more people would flout the rules over the Easter bank holiday weekend – and that they might require tough coronavirus lockdown restrictions – proved unfounded. By and large, people have listened to reminders to stay home and practice physical distancing when they need to go out. Streets in cities from London and Liverpool to Newcastle and Edinburgh were deserted and there was as much emphasis in local news reports this weekend on some people driving at high speeds on empty roads.
Nevertheless, the police have continued to warn they are keeping a watchful eye on the public – and that included using a “sky talk” drone in Sussex and Surrey to broadcast government guidance messages at people or even to have officers were waiting in the shadows, ready to pounce on people in rural Bedfordshire.
The emphasis this weekend has been on how the police have interpreted the lockdown restrictions. Late on Friday, Netpol shared a series of videos [here, here and here] from an incident in Fallowfield in Manchester showing the violent arrest of a man who was delivering food to his mother. During the course of this, another woman was arrested and police used PAVA incapacitant spray.
Eventually, Greater Manchester Police was forced to issue an apology and this incident was publicly condemned by the nationwide Covid-19 Mutual Aid network, who said the man who was arrested had “rightfully referenced the Mutual Aid movement to defend his right to provide support, and it is worrying to hear that this was ignored”.
Widely circulated but without details of where and when it happened, is this video of police smashing in a resident’s door to see if there was a party – apparently acting on a call they had from neighbours.
There were numerous less dramatic reports made on social media about the police demanding people move on: in Hampshire while resting during a cycle ride, using a gated communal garden outside their block or driving to a park with a baby. An incident where a young woman was told to stop feeding her baby while out walking in the park in Brighton has been denied by Sussex Police,
In Chesterfield, police had to issue an apology to a disabled man for ‘misunderstanding’ over gardening after his friend was threatened with a fine for helping him, despite the government advice specifically listing support for vulnerable people as a reason to leave home.
In Glasgow, a disabled woman returning home very heavy groceries was threatened with a fine for sitting down to rest because she “wasn’t exercising”.
Over the weekend, it was reported by Netpol that earlier this month, one hospital trust has said it was forced to intervene with Cambridgeshire police after officers stopped staff on their way to work and told them NHS ID cards were insufficient evidence of essential travel.
Solicitor Steve George reported that he had dealt with a client at a court hearing who was accosted by officers for sitting on a bench eating biscuits. He told them to ‘take a hike’ and was arrested last Thursday, but because his case was not heard until Saturday afternoon, he spent two days in custody for not showing enough “respect”.
On 11 April, NPCC chair Martin Hewitt revealed that 1084 penalty fines have been imposed by 37 forces in England and Wales on those flouting COVID-19 restrictions.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced plans for a Bluetooth-based NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app that will warn users if they have recently been in close proximity to someone suspected to have the infected.
The Guardian reported that a memo has discussed giving ministers the power to ‘de-anonymise’ users of any new contact-tracing app. Equally alarming is evidence that technology firms like Palantir are processing large volumes of confidential UK patient information in a data-mining operation with profound privacy concerns.
The government insists such data will be anonymised. However, Ross Anderson from the University of Cambridge points out in his blog “Light Blue Touchpaper”, contact tracing in the real world is never anonymous and there are a number of ways it can produce misleading results.
Separately, there were reports this weekend that biometric ID cards are back on the table for any lockdown exit strategy.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that some experts are saying growth in surveillance may be hard to scale back after the pandemic. Even ex-Director of MI5, (Lord) Jonathan Evans, argues that if the British government wishes to go down this road, it must agree that openness, oversight and accountability are the mandatory price for doing so.
Watch: Are We Vesting Too Much Power in Governments and Corporations in the Name of Covid-19? With Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.
Thinking of reporting someone’s lockdown behaviour? Think again. Police forces are overwhelmed with reports of breaches. We need to be very careful what this leads to: even greater normalising of surveillance, says Matt Burgess in Wired.
The anarchist collective Freedom has updated their text “Do You Have to Give Cops Your Name and Address” with the recent COVID-19 cop powers developments.
This blog features in a SOAS COP Policy Briefing To Inform Government and Parliamentary Debate: Policing in a Time of Coronavirus by Dr Rob Faure Walker (14th April 2020)