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Paul Vallely: The trouble with policing a pandemic

03 April 2020

The law matters, not ministers’ desires, says Paul Vallely


Police patrol Downhill Beach under Mussenden Temple, in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on Monday, to enforce social distancing during the coronavirus lockdown

Police patrol Downhill Beach under Mussenden Temple, in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on Monday, to enforce social distancing during the coron...

THERE are photos in our local paper of the Blue Lagoon, a beauty spot less than an hour’s drive away, up in the Peak District, where the police have poured black dye into the water to make it less attractive — to deter visitors. The black substance, which was poured in by officers wearing hazmat suits to protect themselves, spread out across the turquoise water like great ugly jellyfish.

It has been portrayed in the popular press as the latest example of “coronavirus correctness gone mad”, along with police use of drones to name and shame walkers taking their dogs out on the high moors and council environmental-health officers telling corner shops that they could not sell Easter eggs as these are “non-essential items”. They widely quoted the former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption, who proclaimed this week that excess enforcement of the official guidance on self-isolation and social distancing was in danger of turning Britain into a “police state”.

The distinguished judge was undoubtedly correct in pointing out that there is an important difference between behaviour that is, on the one hand, unwise and, on the other, illegal. The police have no power to enforce government ministers’ preferences, but only legal regulations. They exceed these when they rule that the law restricts people to exercising outside only once a day or in a certain place.

Good policing depends on consent and relies on the common sense of the public. In the main, that is in evidence. But, as the scenes of panicking shoppers elbowing aside old people in supermarkets — or stealing from the cage containing other shoppers’ donations for foodbanks — reminded us, there are always a few delinquents.

More commonly, there are those who cannot or will not understand the advice to leave a six-foot gap while queuing in the local mini-market, even when the staff have marked black-and-yellow crosses on the floor. “No need to get heavy, bro,” as one joint-smoking youth riposted to an agitated pensioner. Society needs to find ways to discourage such behaviour — after repeat offences, the staff barred the youth — and occasionally the police may have to be involved.

Police chiefs have responded by getting together to agree common guidelines to avoid the inconsistency that Lancashire police issued 123 enforcement notices in less than a week, while Bedfordshire police issued none. They will tell officers that they must enforce the law and not the off-the-cuff pronouncements of individual politicians.

That said, circumstances differ from one place to another. The decision by Derbyshire police to discourage walkers on the high moors came in response to the previous sunny weekend, when visitors inundated the Peak District National Park, crowding into villages populated mainly by elderly residents — and emptying their shops.

As for the Blue Lagoon, what most of the press failed to ascertain is that the use of black dye there has been a common tactic by the police over the years to discourage daytrippers from bathing in the alluring waters, whose colour comes from the calcium oxide used in the quarrying process that created the beautiful pool. It has left the lagoon with a pH not far short of ammonia and bleach, as the signs around the pool make clear. But common sense is sometimes a singularly uncommon quality.

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