Covid fines - Is Northants Police getting it right?
Is Northamptonshire Police being too heavy handed or is their approach to Covid breaches justified?
Before you read today’s article please sign up to our daily newsletter. You’ll receive an original piece of news to your inbox each day about an issue important to our county. It’s free, independent and without the adverts.
By Natalie Bloomer
In recent weeks the Government and police have made it clear that those who breach Covid rules will face a fine. But with the number of penalties issued varying greatly across the country NN Journal today asks if officers in Northants are getting it right.
In Northamptonshire, 848 fixed penalty notices for Covid rule-breaking were handed out between March 27 and December 20 - the second highest amount among neighbouring police forces, behind only Thames Valley Police which issued 965 fines during the same period.
Since then Northamptonshire Police has begun to take an even tougher approach. Superintendent Elliot Foskett told a Covid press conference last week that 188 penalties were issued between December 24 and January 1. He said this compared to 217 handed out by the Metropolitan Police which covers the whole of Greater London. A further 413 fines were dished out in the first nine days of lockdown alone.
“Northamptonshire Police has been really ahead of this in relation to enforcement and taking action where flagrant breaches have been evident,” he said.
“Since this third lockdown we’ve placed an even greater emphasis on enforcing the regulations to support our colleagues.”
The force also seems to be encouraging the public to report suspected Covid breaches. Chief Constable Nick Adderley recently responded to a message on Twitter to tell somebody how to report a neighbour who has had regular visits from a friend. Supt Foskett said 12,000 reports such as this have been responded to by email since the pandemic began.
Support or enforcement?
The civil liberties group Liberty has concerns about the different approaches being seen between forces and believes communication and support are needed to tackle the crisis fairly. In a statement to NN Journal Policy and campaigns manager Rosalind Comyn said:
“Chaotic communications combined with sweeping criminal justice measures have led to wildly differing experiences of police enforcement for people in different areas. A lack of review or appeal process means it is impossible to understand and address why some forces have used these powers so much more than others.
“The Government has consistently prioritised criminal justice as treatment for a public health crisis even though studies show that communication and support is far more effective than coercion and punishment for ensuring people are able to follow public health guidance.
“You can not police your way out of a pandemic. We need a better way forward, with support prioritised over enforcement, so that the pandemic strategy protects everyone.”
However, the Conservative leader of Daventry council and former police officer Richard Auger believes Northamptonshire Police is getting the balance right.
“I don’t think it helps to measure police forces against each other because communities are different and policing is different. I think it’s right that the police first try to educate and get people to comply. For a long while Northants has done that but there comes a point when if a small amount of people keep breaking the rules enforcement is needed.
“I think Nick Adderley is getting it right and I completely support him, people have been given enough time but of course there will always be instances when discretion is needed.”
Adam Brown, a Conservative county councillor agrees that the approach from Northamptonshire Police has been about right.
“From the limited data I've been given access to I think the local police have taken a balanced view on it. I think locally there seems to be evidence that there has been advice first and then enforcement.
“Anecdotally it seems in some areas people are becoming a bit more complacent and the deterrent of fines is a good reminder that we need to follow the rules to protect the NHS.”
Last week Northamptonshire saw an increase of 4,800 Covid cases and 40 per cent of hospital beds in the county are now occupied by Covid patients.
Supt Foskett also said Northants Police would be making spot checks on vehicles of people who may be sharing a car to get to work.
“We get regular reports of people travelling to and from work sharing cars - three or four people in a car," he said.
“We get these reports in, we’re now targeting them so you can expect to see us out on the road in high visibility vehicles to help stop that happening around the industrial estates.”
But the rules regarding car sharing to get to work are not entirely clear. The latest government guidance states:
“Car sharing is not permitted with someone from outside your household or your support bubble unless your journey is undertaken for an exempt reason. For example, if car sharing is reasonably necessary as part of your work.”
The ‘exempt reasons’ part of the guidance then links to a list of “reasonable excuses” for leaving your house - one of which is to travel to work when you can not work from home.
Rachelle Wilkins, a trade union officer at GMB in our region says her organisation could seek legal advice on behalf of any of their members who are told they can not car share by police.
“We’re talking about key workers here, they are people whose work has been deemed necessary to continue throughout the pandemic to keep the country going. I don’t think it’s fair that they are now being targeted by the police.
“The rules on car sharing are not clear and for many people this is the only way they can get to work. If members tell us they are being told by police they are not allowed to car share I think we’d be seeking legal advice on their behalf.”
Anjona Roy, a Labour and Co-op councillor in Northampton also has concerns about the crack down.
“I personally have concerns about the statements that Northamptonshire Police has made on cracking down on people car sharing. Local authorities have a responsibility to make sure public transport is safe and all measures have been taken to make it safe.
“Many people believe that more employers are operating compared to last lockdown and we are seeing local working people penalised for going to work - are employers being prosecuted for opening when they should be shut?”
In a statement from Northamptonshire Police last week, assistant chief constable Simon Blatchly said:
“Policing across the UK has been asked to be even more proactive in tackling those people who are not complying with the law, and that is what we’re doing. Our Neighbourhood Teams are completing Covid patrols, focussing on our town centres, public transport, parks, country parks and supermarkets, in order to engage and offer reassurance to the public.
“Social distancing measures and the need to wear a face mask in shops and on public transport have been the law for six months, there is no excuse for not knowing the rules. Likewise, people know they shouldn’t be having visitors to their homes, other than those who are in their support bubble, and then only when absolutely necessary. The more people mix, the higher the risk of the virus spreading.
“My officers will continue to respond to reported breaches of Covid legislation and issue fines of up to £10,000 to anyone hosting a gathering and £200 fines to those people in attendance.”