Police ‘deeply concerned’ people could ignore official advice on coronavirus

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Police and health authorities are “deeply concerned” the debate over social distancing regulations will encourage people to ignore official advice in Northern Ireland.

It is not always possible to give individual answers on what constitutes an offence for the countless hypothetical scenarios which may arise, the joint statement said.

Whether driving to participate in exercise is allowed and if an expanding list of circumstances should be legitimate excuses for travel have been widely discussed.

The statement said: “We are deeply concerned that the current discourse may serve to undermine public confidence in the overall regulations, and encourage some people to ignore the strong guidance from the Northern Ireland Executive – with potentially devastating consequences.”

PSNI stock
Police have issued hundreds of fines when efforts to encourage people to go home have failed (Niall Carson/PA).

“The overriding principle in applying any reasonableness test is not what may be reasonable for people to want to do, but what is reasonable in achieving the aim of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus, balanced with other risks and considerations.”

Stormont ministers have been coming under pressure to say when they believe the lockdown will be eased amid increasing damage to the economy.

Businesses like restaurants and pubs, hairdressers and hoteliers have warned of the potential for calamity if restrictions are not scaled back quickly.

Regulations on social distancing were quickly introduced and in an ideal world would have received detailed scrutiny in the Stormont Assembly before becoming law, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Department of Health said.

It added: “However, we are not living in an ideal world at present.

“The overriding priority at this time is protection of life.

“Regulations to enforce and encourage social distancing have a vital role to play in that regard.”

“There will inevitably be some shades of grey. That’s the reality of life.

“The police have rightly made clear that officers will apply a ‘reasonableness’ test on occasions when deciding if some behaviours may breach the regulations.”

It said officers applied discretion on a case-specific basis which could be challenged in court.

“Whilst understanding people’s desire for clarity in what constitutes an offence under the regulations, it is not always possible to give individual answers for the countless hypothetical scenarios which may arise.

“Notwithstanding this, the public health guidance is clear: stay home and only leave home when it is essential.”

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