By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain brought in tough measures on Thursday to curb the spread of coronavirus and ensure people obey the government’s virtual lockdown which many thousands are feared to have so far ignored.
The new powers allow police to issue instant fines those who leave their homes without good reason or gather in groups of more than two people.
In northern England, one police force has begun introducing random vehicle checkpoints to ensure the new rules are enforced while the head of the Church of England told Britons who were flouting the instructions to “get your act together”.
Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants and nearly all shops to close, banned social gatherings and told people to stay at home unless they needed to buy food, go out to essential work or to exercise once a day.
While millions have respected the measures, roads and parks have remained busy, and the authorities across the country have repeatedly reported that people have not respected the 2 metre (6 foot) guidance on social distancing while others have continued to mingle.
On Thursday, a new regulations came into effect which give the authorities the power to impose a 30-pound fixed penalty on those who breach the rules. Repeat offenders could ultimately receive a fine of up to 960 pounds and might be arrested.
Those who did not pay up could be taken to court, where magistrates could impose unlimited fines, the government said.
“The prime minister has been clear on what we need to do: stay at home to protect our NHS and save lives,” said Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel.
Some Britons have continued their daily routine and risked spreading the virus which the government fears could overwhelm the National Health Service if large numbers contract COVID-19.
In east London, police and the Tower Hamlets local authority said they had been forced to close Victoria Park, one of the largest and most popular open public spaces in the area, because people were failing to abide by the guidance.
The Royal Parks, a charity which looks after eight major parks across the capital, said it too was considering shutting its gates.
“It is up to all of us collectively to adhere to the latest guidance, otherwise we will have to consider closing the parks. We will keep the situation under constant review,” said Tom Jarvis, its Director of Parks.
Other cities have already closed some parks and facilities to meet the guidance on social distancing while Greater Manchester firefighters said they had received reports of lots of people having barbecues on moorlands.
Meanwhile police in Devon, southwest England, said when they has asked a young cyclist why he was four miles from his home and not following the rules, he had replied: “It only kills old people”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual head of the Church of England, said people should not act selfishly.
“Get your act together,” he said to those who have been ignoring the strict government social distancing instructions.
“If you are not complying, you are risking other people’s lives, not just your own,” he told ITV News.
To ensure compliance, police in northern England said they would bring in vehicle checkpoints from Thursday, along with foot patrols to disperse any groups.
“We sincerely hope that we won’t have to resort to enforcement action, but if people do not comply, we will,” said Mike Walker, Assistant Chief Constable of North Yorkshire.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said anyone who claimed they had the virus and deliberately coughed at police or other emergency workers could be charged with common assault and face up to two years in jail.
“Let me be very clear: this is a crime and needs to stop.”
(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)