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Coronavirus lockdown laws could have been clearer to make our job easier, say police

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PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd.

PA

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd.

Police said laws to allow them to enforce the coronavirus measures could have been clearer in order to make their job easier.

The PSNI has also requested the Department of Health consider designating other public officials to enforce lockdown measures so it can focus on its "core responsibilities".

Police have been criticised over their handling of new powers to enforce the Covid-19 lockdown with some arguing they are going beyond what the legislation allows. The force said it recognised the impact its actions in response had on public confidence but it had the backing of the Department of Health.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd told the BBC Stephen Nolan show: "The regulations provided by the Department of Health were produced in order to deal with the current health emergency.

"Greater clarity in the regulations would have undoubtedly made our job easier; however, we recognise the difficult circumstances under which the regulations were produced and the ultimate desire to save lives."

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly states that no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse".

One of the "reasonable excuses" listed in the legislation is "to take exercise either alone or with other members of their household".

The Department of Health have recognised our current approach is a reasonable and pragmatic approach to enforcement. ACC Todd

The legislation makes no reference to where exactly the exercise should be carried out.

PSNI advice states that people can leave home "to exercise, for example, a run, walk or cycle - alone or with members of your household".

Chief Constable Simon Byrne told the public exercise should start at the front door.

Police have set up a dedicated reporting hotline for the public to report concerns about people potentially flouting the rules. On Tuesday it was revealed more than 600 reports had been made every day since it was introduced on April 10.

The PSNI said the reports included claims of people exercising more than once a day and a jogger coming within two metres of someone on a footpath. However, reports they said lacked clarity or provided insufficient information for them to act.

Hundreds have been fined since the lockdown was introduced.

We understand the need to be transparent and accountable to the community. ACC Todd.

Police said they had taken legal advice on the new laws, but refused to disclose that guidance saying it was subject to "legal privilege".

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd continued: “Our view of the current regulations continues to be that people are required stay at home unless they have a reasonable excuse/need to be away from home.

“While our legal advice is subject to legal privilege, we understand the need to be transparent and accountable to the community on this issue. It is therefore important to note that our current approach was developed with the benefit of other legal consultation and guidance and that it has the support of a range of partners including the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Northern Ireland Executive including the Department of Health and the Department of Justice."

The attorney general's office said it was in discussions with the Public Prosecution Service on providing guidance on the measures.

ACC Todd continued: "We continue to talk to the Department of Health and other Executive partners about the regulations and our policing approach.

"In their most recent correspondence with us, the Department of Health have recognised our current approach is a reasonable and pragmatic approach to enforcement. We will continue to engage with the Department of Health, particularly in relation to their commitment to review the Regulations every 21 days.

We are not seeking to criminalise people – quite the opposite

"We will respond to any changes directed by the Department of Health and the Executive and if further guidance is forthcoming, from whatever source, clearly we will take that on-board.

“As the public would expect us to do, we have undertaken our role in the current health emergency to support the health service. We did not assume these new powers lightly and we recognise that our approach has an impact on public confidence.

“We are not seeking to criminalise people – quite the opposite. The key focus of our approach continues to be one of engagement. We continue to talk to people we see out and about; explaining what we require them to do and encouraging them to change their behaviour to reduce the spread of the virus. We are only using enforcement as a last resort – if people are not listening and putting lives at risk.

“Our key role is to support our Health Service colleagues by reducing the spread of the virus.

“We want to thank the vast majority of our community who are supporting us by staying at home and saving lives.”

The Department of Health has been approached for comment.

Belfast Telegraph