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Rule of six? We’d rather be out there tackling knife crime, says police chief

‘Covid marshals’ will be recruited and officers insist reporting neighbours is not ‘snitching’

17 September, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby

Superintendent Neil Holyoak briefing officers during lockdown

A POLICE chief has called the changing messages on Covid-19 “very confusing” as the force was asked to start splitting up groups of more than six people.

The government’s new “rule of six” came into effect on Monday but Chief Inspector Pete Dearden said he would rather be focusing on tackling violent crime than enforcing the order.

Speaking to the New Journal on Tuesday afternoon, he said he had only just received guidance from the Home Office on how the legislation will be enforced.

“We as police don’t want to have to remove people from the streets unless it’s clear they’re committing a statutory offence, and this rather draconian legislation kind of goes against our policing by consent,” Ch Insp Dearden said.

“Looking at the legislation there’s a lot of room for interpretation and wriggle room which is why we will take a pragmatic approach to enforcement.

“Throughout Covid we’ve been using the ‘four Es’ approach which is to engage, explain and encourage and as a last resort enforce and we will continue to do so.

“The problem is now that because younger people are getting ill but having less fatalities, people think it’s just an illness and they are less likely to observe the legislation. It’s been over 20 weeks now and people are a bit Covid-blind, and it’s been very confusing in terms of messaging with it changing almost daily.”

He added: “We haven’t issued a ticket for some time, since the lockdown lifted, and at the moment I am seeing no reason to change that as people are listening to us and usually disperse after we approach them.”

Under the rules, fines of £100 can be issued. For those organising large gatherings, the penalty can be as high as £10,000.

“We are just finding we are having to remind businesses, licensed premises and people who organise community gatherings to rethink their plans,” Ch Insp Dearden said.

Meanwhile, so-called “Covid marshals” are due to be introduced, which would see local authorities recruit volunteers to help spot and deal with breaches.

Ch Ins Dearden said: “I’d rather my officers focus on tackling violence and knife crime than patrolling whether there are seven people sat together in a park. “We’ll focus more on large gatherings such as Airbnb parties that have gotten out of control or Unlicensed Music Events [UMEs].

“We’ve always been in partnership with the council on this and we are currently setting up plans to have the Covid marshals. Anything they can’t resolve will be referred up to us. We’re meeting this week to discuss how it will work.”

The “rule of six” covers all socialising indoors or outdoors, but there are exemptions for workplace settings and organised sports. Anybody organising a demonstration will be required to draw up a risk assessment.

Camden and Islington’s Superintendent for neighbourhoods, Neil Holyoak, said: “The landscape has changed from when we were in lockdown when it was quite easy to pick out people breaching the rules but now the pubs are open, the shops and restaurants are open, it’ll definitely be more difficult to spot people breaking the law and not infringe on people’s right to go about their day lawfully.

“I think for us to be able to use this power we need to understand it first. My fear as a senior officer is the confusion for officers as I don’t want them to misuse powers they’ve been given. I’d rather not use those powers if there’s any misunderstanding.”

Home Office minister Kit Malthouse on Monday encouraged people to report their neighbours for any suspected breaches.

Supt Holyoak said: “I know people have concerns about the encouraging of reporting on neighbours, but it’s not asking people to ‘snitch’. It’s a case of asking people to do what we already expect the public to do, which is report on wrongdoing.

“We’ve had over 1,700 Covid-related reports since the beginning of the lockdown and the majority of these we’ve dealt with over the phone or with minimal resource.

“We should all be concerned that the infection rate is going up. Personally, as a father, I don’t want schools to close again, or society to shut down again, because it’s going to have a significant impact on the future of our children. For that reason, we all need to take responsibility and comply with the law – as confusing as it is – if we ever hope to rid our country of this dreadful illness.”

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