Ministers have given police the green light to take a tougher stance on enforcing coronavirus restrictions, as the UK recorded 1,243 daily deaths – the second worst figure since the pandemic began 12 months ago.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, the home secretary, Priti Patel, put the onus firmly on the public to play their part in reining in soaring Covid-19 infections by obeying the rules, making clear that ministers’ focus in the coming days is compliance rather than tighter controls.
The home secretary insisted that the rules imposed by Boris Johnson last week are “tough enough” to deal with the crisis, and rejected suggestions that they are too unclear for people to follow effectively.
She brushed aside allegations that the prime minister undermined the government’s “stay home” message by travelling seven miles to ride his bicycle on Sunday when guidelines say any exercise should be done locally. She insisted that the important thing was that he stayed away from other people while exercising.
Despite the controversy that forced Derbyshire police to withdraw £200 penalties on two women who drove five miles for a walk at a beauty spot, she said police have her backing to step up patrols to enforce lockdown rules, targeting the worst offenders with on-the-spot fines.
And she backed the big four supermarket chains – Morrison’s, Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s – which have said they will step up enforcement of guidance of mask-wearing in stores.
Ms Patel described the 1,243 tally of fatalities and 45,533 positive tests reported in the 24 hours to Tuesday as “horrifying”.
But she dodged the question of whether they were driven by the decision to impose less stringent measures than last March in areas like keeping schools, nurseries and playgrounds open and allowing more people to go to work outside their homes.
While saying that lockdown restrictions are always “under review”, she said: “The rules are clear, the rules are firm in terms of staying at home … The rules are tough enough.”
She added: “My message today to anyone refusing to do the right thing is simple: if you do not play your part our selfless police officers – who are out there risking their own lives every day to keep us safe – they will enforce the regulations.
“And I will back them to do so, to protect our NHS and to save lives.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman, Martin Hewitt, told the press conference that forces across the UK have already issued almost 45,000 fixed penalty notices for breaches of lockdown, including a Hertfordshire boat party involving more than 40 people, a minibus of people from different households travelling to Wales for a walk, and a 19-year-old advertising an illegal rave on social media.
Mr Hewitt said officers would tone down the “encourage” element of their 4Es approach to regulations – engage, explain, encourage, enforce – and would not “waste time” reasoning with those who have no regard to the safety of others.
Police will fine not only the organisers but also attendees of parties and other large gatherings and anyone travelling on buses or trains unmasked without an exemption can “expect a fine”, he said.
“I think the rules are clear enough for people to understand, we are 10 months into this process,” he said. “People need to accept the personal responsibility to act properly to prevent the spread of the virus.”
His comments echoed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, who said it was “preposterous” that anyone could be unaware of the need to follow restrictions.
But Surrey police and crime commissioner David Munro said the rules were “not as clear as they could be”, as demonstrated by the reaction to Mr Johnson’s cycle ride in the Olympic Park in east London.
“Clearly other people are worried and I think the very fact that we have to question whether a prime minister is obeying the guidance or not, doesn’t that prove the point we need greater clarity?” Mr Munro told Times Radio.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said: “People right across the United Kingdom have made tremendous sacrifices over the last eight or nine months. The least they deserve from the government is clarity in its messaging to make it easier for everyone.
“The prime minister has to ask himself some pretty serious questions as to whether or not that bike ride is assisting in solving the problem.”
Downing Street made clear that the furore would not drive Mr Johnson off his bike and said it was acceptable for people to travel some distance to walk, run or cycle, if they did not have appropriate green spaces on their doorsteps.
“He will be doing bike rides again – you all know how much he loves his bike,” the PM’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, told reporters.
“We all should be exercising once a day. We all have to make personal judgments about whether what we are doing is within the guidelines and in this case, the prime minister acted in accordance with the guidelines.”
Ms Dick said her interpretation of “local” under lockdown regulations was “going for your exercise from your front door and coming back to your front door”.
But she added: “Anything that brings greater clarity for officers and the public in general will be a good thing.”
Policing minister Kit Malthouse said that the definition of “local” would depend on an individual’s particular circumstances. “Seven miles will be local in different areas and at different times,” he said.
And a Downing Street spokesperson agreed: “Different people have their own individual circumstances in terms of proximity to outdoor spaces, which is why we have asked them to exercise judgement.”
A new poll by Savanta ComRes found that almost half (48 per cent) of those questioned thought the government was not doing enough to support the NHS – up seven points in the last four weeks and the highest since the company’s regular coronavirus tracker began.
Mr Johnson’s net approval rating on coronavirus – obtained by subtracting the numbers dissatisfied from those satisfied – was down two points to minus 13, while health secretary Matt Hancock was down four on minus 12.