A police force has defended using a drone camera to shame people into not driving into a national park during the lockdown, while another force said it was introducing roadblocks to stop drivers heading to tourist hotspots.
A new law came into effect on Thursday allowing police to use force to make people return home.
Derbyshire police tweeted drone footage taken near Curbar Edge, in the Peak District, and said they had checked the numberplates of vehicles in the car park and found that some cars were registered to addresses in Sheffield, a 30-minute drive away.
Police said members of the public should not be driving anywhere to walk their dogs or exercise. However, the Guardian checked with the Cabinet Office, which is overseeing restrictions on movement, and a spokeswoman confirmed that the guidelines did not prohibit driving somewhere for exercise or dog walking.
Derbyshire police tweeted: “Despite posts yesterday highlighting issues of people still visiting the #PeakDistrict despite government guidance, the message is still not getting through. @DerPolDroneUnit have been out at beauty spots across the county, and this footage was captured at #CurbarEdge last night.”
It added: “Some number plates were coming back to keepers in #Sheffield, so we know that people are travelling to visit these areas. Daily exercise should be taken locally to your home. Under government guidance all travel is limited to essential travel only. Travelling to remote areas of the #PeakDistrict for your exercise is not essential travel. PLEASE, #StayHomeSaveLives.”
A spokesman for Derbyshire police insisted there was nothing sinister about the drone deployment. “It’s not Big Brother. It’s just to illustrate the fact that people are going out and making these journeys against the government’s rules. The rules are clear that people should avoid all non-essential travel and exercise and walk their dogs near their homes. If they drive into the Peaks and have a collision or breakdown or go for a walk and fall over, we’re the ones who will be called, or mountain rescue,” he said.
The drone operator was not hidden, he added. “The pilot was standing next to a liveried police vehicle close to the car park while people were coming in and out.”
Civil liberties groups criticised the sweeping powers given to police on Thursday, including the power to force people to go home, as “authoritarian” and “chilling”. Police vowed to use them if they had to do so.
Fines will start at £30, offenders can also be arrested, and police say they will try to persuade people to obey a lockdown that few expect will end in three weeks time.
Clare Collier, the advocacy director at Liberty, said: “We’re extremely concerned by the extent of these coercive powers. This is a pandemic and so it should be treated as a public health issue. Instead the government is treating it as a criminal justice issue, putting resources into detaining and criminalising.
“What’s concerning is what this heavy-handed approach will do to the public’s relationship with the police in the long-term. And while some people will feel reassured by a firmer police response to the pandemic, others will feel fear, especially groups who are already over-policed.”
Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, said: “These are chilling powers that create a serious risk of arbitrary policing. Authorities are right to take robust measures to protect public health, but in truth the only way we can control the spread is through well-informed community cooperation, not just criminalisation. Basic safeguards are missing from these extraordinary powers and I’m afraid more draconian powers still are to come from the Coronavirus Act.”
Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who was involved in negotiations with the government about the powers, said: “I am confident the overwhelming majority of people already understand the gravity of the situation we face. There will be a small number who do not and we will engage with them, explain to them and encourage them to go home. If they refuse to do the right thing, we are fully prepared to use these new powers.”
Under measures announced on Monday by Boris Johnson, members of the public are allowed out of their homes for one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of their household.
The government guidance does not specify how long this exercise can last or how far a distance it can cover. It does not specifically ban driving somewhere to walk a pet or exercise, but makes clear that all non-essential travel should be avoided.
In North Yorkshire, police said they would set up checkpoints to determine if drivers’ journeys were essential. The move was being introduced to ensure motorists are complying with government restrictions, North Yorkshire police said.
“Officers will be stopping vehicles and asking motorists where they are going, why they are going there, and reminding them of the message to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives,” the force said in a statement. The checkpoints will be unannounced and could be anywhere across the county.
The assistant chief constable Mike Walker said: “The new and significant restrictions … spell out very clearly what each and every one of us must do to save lives. The message is clear and the warning stark: stay at home, save lives.
“These are the lives of the people we know and love. Our partners, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, grandparents. You may never be in such a position again where your simple actions will lead directly to saving lives.”
Police in west and mid-Wales have begun stopping drivers to check that their journeys are essential, and are also patrolling public spaces and tourist hotspots.
Andy Williams, a Dyfed-Powys roads policing inspector, said: “More people on the roads means a greater likelihood of vehicles breaking down or being involved in an accident, which puts extra strain on the emergency services. These extra interactions also increase the chances of the virus spreading and putting more people’s lives in danger.”
On Wednesday North Wales police sent a family of five home after they were caught travelling from Merseyside to Llanfairfechan for a day at the seaside. In a Facebook post, the force’s Conwy coastal unit said: “Officers are out patrolling and it is pleasing to see that most people are sticking to the government advice.”
UK police use drones and roadblocks to enforce lockdown – The Guardian