Coronavirus - Police Powers Increased by New Regulations

26 March saw the coming into force of the new Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations, which are intended to raise the stakes further in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

These regulations severely restrict and, in some cases, completely shut down the operations of a wide range of specified businesses subject to very limited exceptions: see also our FAQs on Business Closures. Although these regulations are due to remain in effect for 6 months, the draconian measures that are now imposed on both individuals and companies must be reviewed by the Secretary of State at least once every 21 days in order to determine whether these restrictions are still necessary (the first review is scheduled to take place by 16 April).The salient parts of these regulations can be summarised as follows:

  • All businesses who sell food and drink for consumption on their premises are required to close during this period. This prohibition specifically excludes workplace canteens providing that there is no practical alternative for staff to obtain food.
  • All businesses listed in part 2 of schedule 2, such as cinemas and museums, are the subject of a blanket closure whereas businesses listed in part 3, such as food retailers and petrol stations, are able to continue to operate subject to certain conditions.
  • Other companies not listed in parts 2 or 3, such as clothing retailers, may only continue to sell goods as long as this is limited to online sales or orders by telephone. There are also important exemptions relating to those who are responsible for running holiday accommodation and places of worship.
  • No person may leave their place of residence without a reasonable excuse. The expression 'reasonable excuse' is defined and, where businesses are concerned, this includes 'travelling for the purpose of work' where it is not reasonably possible for staff to carry out their duties at home.
  • Public gatherings of more than 2 persons are also prohibited unless a specific exemption applies. In a workplace scenario, all staff are now required to demonstrate that any gathering above 2 in number is 'essential for work purposes' in order to avoid criminal sanctions.

Enforcement and penalties

The Police now have powers to order dispersals of persons and, if necessary, use force to ensure compliance with these regulations. They also have powers to issue fixed penalty notices to anyone who they reasonably believe has committed an offence under these regulations. Any such notice attracts a fine of £60 for a first offence (reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days) and a fine of £120 for a second offence. Any subsequent breaches attract a fine which is double the amount paid in the most recent fixed penalty notice up to a maximum of £960.On a more extreme scale, and in the event of a prosecution, any person or company are liable to receive an unlimited fine on conviction. Similarly, if a company commits an offence with the consent, connivance, or if this is attributable to neglect on the part of an 'officer' (defined as a Director, Manager, Secretary, or similar person within a company) then any such person is also liable to be convicted and face the same sanctions.Although the Home Office, in announcing these new and wide-ranging powers, have sought to reassure the Country by stating that "in the first instance, the police will always apply their common sense and discretion", we have already seen severe criticism being levied at the Police within the past 24 hours.In direct response to this criticism, Police chiefs have acted quickly to reassure the public and issue new guidance to their officers in attempt to harmonise Police tactics and clarify the term 'reasonable excuse'. Although the extent of this guidance is limited, this does make it clear that both essential and non-essential workers are permitted to travel to work as long as it is not reasonably possible to work from home. Importantly, the guidance also makes it clear that written proof of the need to travel to work is not required and Police officers should not be requesting identification documents or documents of any other kind.Furthermore, where volunteer workers are concerned, there is no need for persons to be affiliated to a registered organisation or charity. Although the guidance makes it clear that a volunteer who delivers food packages to vulnerable persons would be a 'reasonable excuse', the same guidance also makes it clear that it is not necessary for any volunteer work to be specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic.Despite the publication of this guidance, time will tell whether officers will adopt a consistent and measured approach to enforcement across the Country. In light of this uncertainty, companies need to familiar themselves with these regulations and guidance and make sure that, if they do continue to operate, they are clear on what 'exemptions' they are able to rely on if questioned by the Police. Any failure to do so may well result in a prosecution and a severe financial penalty if convicted! It is equally important for companies to communicate these changes to staff as, any employee who is caught flouting the law, may also result in criminal sanctions for their employer.A link to the new regulations and guidance can be found here; our Compliance & Regulatory team today if you require advice on how these regulations impact on your organisation.

If you would like to talk through the consequences for your business, please email us and one of our team will get in touch.


The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.