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Police Failure to Adopt a 'Public Health' Approach

Police failure to adopt a 'public health' approach during COVID-19, over an enforcement approach.

Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures on March 23, there have been growing concerns around draconian tactics and overreach by police forces.

This then begs the question; was it right for the police to adopt an enforcement approach over a 'public health' approach during the COVID-19 pandemic?

To fully analyse whether the police should have taken a 'public health' approach, we need to understand what these terms mean for policing.

According to The College of Policing UK, 'public health' approaches;

"Start with the needs of the public or population groups rather than with individual people."

This differs from an enforcement approach;

"Where officers respond to calls about individual victims or perpetrators."

Policing in a global pandemic requires a completely unfamiliar approach. Walton, Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command at the Metropolitan Police, gave an insight into what this unique approach would look like;

"The police service will have the capacity and capability to deal with the high demand emanating from the crisis, the impact on law and order and on society more broadly."

Further to this, Walton highlights the need for a correct balance to ensure that the police can deal with crime and aiding the health service and its workers. It seems the police have struggled to find this balance and have been criticised for ignoring the 'public health' approach.

During the first few months, the pandemic caused widespread panic and confusion. This confusion spread to understanding the special powers that the police had been given to deal with the crisis. A Freedom of Information request was made to the MPS by a member of the public who sought to clarify what approach the police were taking. The Metropolitan Police responded by laying out COVID-19 police powers;

"We're following the 4 E's: Engage. Explain. Encourage. Enforce. First, we will try to engage with someone, explain how we think they are breaking the rules, and encourage them to change their behaviour to reduce the risk to public safety and health."

Failure to comply will result in further action by the police;

"Tell them to disperse, tell parents to stop their children breaking the rules, fine them."

According to the Metropolitan Police, this will escalate to an arrest if someone continues to ignore the instructions.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulation 2020, approved on 9 March 2020, gave the police the power to detain anyone suspected of having COVID-19. This was replaced by The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (the Regulations) on 26 March 2020. The Regulations allow the police to take actions that are necessary to enforce new restrictions such as movement restrictions and enforcing business closures. Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, the national lead for civil contingencies ensured

“Police would not use the powers ‘willy nilly’.”

Despite this reassurance, actions carried out by the police drew criticism throughout the UK. It was reported that police used extreme tactics and overreached their powers given by the Regulations;

“Police in the town of Warrington in northern England were criticized last weekend for issuing a citation to six people for a variety of apparently minor acts. One recipient was ‘out for a drive due to boredom’, the force said on Twitter Sunday, while a group of people from the same household were stopped by officers for ‘going to the shops for non-essential items’.”

The use of drones and punishment for buying ‘non-essential’ items, such as Easter Eggs, highlights the poorly judged enforcement approach taken, whereas a ‘public health’ approach may have been better suited, due to the current global health crisis.

Police Chiefs have issued new guidelines to officers as they have recognised that police officers have been heavy-handed in their use of the special powers. The new guidance aims to bring consistency to enforcement;

“Police chiefs have told officers that people should not be punished for driving a reasonable distance to exercise, and that blanket checks were disproportionate, in a bid to quell a row about heavy-handed enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown.”

Police policies should reflect the changes happening around us. No one could predict a global pandemic, but this is not an excuse for heavy-handed tactics especially when they take the place of a ‘public health’ approach.

Sidley Austin LLP raises a valid and concerning worry, that police tactics may have Human Rights implications. The measure may have a catastrophic effect on Human Rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. An insight report published by Sidley Austin LLP notes,

“Police powers to isolate potentially infectious persons and enforce movement restrictions may interfere with the right to liberty, as protected by Article 5 of the Convention, as well as the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the Convention. Restrictions on gatherings potentially pose a threat to the rights to freedom of expression (Article 10 of the Convention and the rights of assembly and association (Article 11 of the Convention).”

These temporary measures aim to protect public health and therefore the implications on Human Rights may be difficult to prove. However, we still have to ask ourselves whether measures carried out by the police were proportionate or only served to be a part of an overzealous enforcement approach.

Some could argue that everything the police do constitutes a ‘public health’ approach. Their very job requires them to have the needs of the public at heart. That being said, some lockdown measures by police appear to favour an enforcement approach over a ‘public health’ one. The use of drones and telling shopkeepers what products they can and cannot sell blurs the line between ‘public health’ and enforcement.


1. College of Policing (2020), Public health approaches in policing, Available at:

2. techUK (2020), COVID-19: Policing a Pandemic, Available at:

3. Metropolitan Police (2020), Coronavirus (Covid-19) police powers, Available at:

4. The Independent (2020), Coronavirus: UK police to start ‘graduated withdrawal of service’ if outbreak worsens, Available at:

5. CNN (2020), UK coronavirus response criticized as people are filmed by drones and stopped while shopping, Available at:

6. The Guardian (2020), UK coronavirus lockdown: police reissued with guidance on enforcement, Available at:

7. Sidley Austin (2020), COVID-19 Control Measures – UK Police Powers, Available at:

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