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Artillery Row

New rules

Policing the spirit of the law

Today during the daily lobby call the PM’s official spokesman was asked a series of those strangely specific questions which only come with Covid. Can you drink coffee outside? Can you sit on a park bench to drink coffee outside? Is it illegal to sit on a park bench? Can you walk and drink coffee outside? Why is it legal to buy a coffee from a takeaway coffee shop if you might be arrested for drinking it? Do you have to take it home to drink it? Does a drink count as a picnic?

These questions were in relation to recent cases of what looked like overzealous policing. Two women were fined £200 each by Derbyshire police for driving 10 minutes to meet at a reservoir and told that the coffees they were carrying constituted a picnic. In Bournemouth a woman was arrested for sitting on a park bench. The police claim the Bournemouth incident was “staged” by anti-lockdown protesters, who had been organising “flashmobs” around town and who did not provide their details when asked. But Bournemouth Police did not deny that the reason why the law/guidance/spirt-in-which-the-rules-should-be-understood breaker was approached was because of her sedentary position outside.

In answer to all of the questions above we got a stock response. “We’ve set out the rules for exercising and the rules for takeaways”, replied the PM’s Official Spokesman, several times. He added that the Health Secretary had supported the police in the case of the two women – Matt Hancock said that every ‘flex’ of lockdown rules could be fatal. But the point, of course, was whether it was actually a ‘flex’ of the rules, as opposed to being a question of whether the police where all too literally enforcing fictional rules.

Back in December when the PM’s spokesman was asked endlessly what constituted a “substantial meal” a number of people commented that it was a classic Westminster bubble story where journalists were simply having a laugh and not applying common sense. But whether or not a scotch egg constituted a substantial meal was not a joke for thousands of businesses: it was the difference between making money or getting shut down. And the current confusion over what constitutes a local area, exercise, and a picnic is not a joke either for Jessica Allen or Eliza Moore, the two women fined for drinking coffee outside.

The Government is often attacked for producing granular levels of detail in their Covid guidance but the flip side is when the Government produces ambiguous laws (something The Critic warned about early on), some police forces are all too willing to interpret them to inevitably counterproductive degrees. We have policing by consent in this country, and losing consent to the pandemic being policed cannot be a step anyone wants to blunder into.

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