A senior police commander has voiced concern at the number of house parties continuing to take place during lockdown.
Assistant chief constable Alan Todd said gatherings in private dwellings were the primary concern of public health experts and, as a consequence, were the key focus of police efforts to enforce coronavirus regulations.
Mr Todd’s comments came as the body representing rank and file officers, the Police Federation, called for Stormont to give the PSNI more powers to order people to return home.
Under new powers that came into force last week, police can order people to return to their property if they are in breach of regulations.
However, they can only advise people to return home if they are acting in variance with coronavirus guidance.
Police have stepped up patrols across Northern Ireland since the new regulations came into operation.
Mr Todd said: “Our biggest concern as a police service reflects the biggest concern from the senior medical advisers, and that is house parties and house gatherings in breach of the regulations where large numbers of people, meeting indoors, with alcohol for prolonged periods of time, creates a significant infection risk.
“The house gathering piece is a keen focus for us, because that’s what we’ve been advised is the key priority for the medical health advisers.”
The senior officer insisted officers did have the power under the regulations to enter private dwellings to ascertain whether breaches had occurred, so long as their actions were necessary and proportionate.
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland chair Mark Lindsay said the police needed the certainty of regulations in more areas. He noted that there was no regulation around the distance people could travel for exercise.
“Most people are willing to comply, but there is nothing officers can do if some choose to ignore the guidance they are given at road stops,” he said.
“Of course, there will always be a case for guidance, but officers say that guidance needs to be strengthened and placed into tougher regulations.
“Only then will officers be able to order people to return to their homes or run the risk of a fixed penalty notice. Only then will officers have the backing of law to support the actions they take on the roadside or elsewhere.
“It beggars belief that some people wilfully ignore the advice that’s offered.
“However, they’re not breaking any law when they thank officers for the guidance they are offered and plough on regardless.
“For the minority who flout the guidance, the police must be given full enforcement powers to order them to do what they should be doing anyway, and that is staying at home and not leaving the house unless for permitted activities.
“For as long as we don’t see guidance turned into regulation, we will have abuses. The minority is laughing at wider society and they should know that their behaviour will not be tolerated.”
Mr Todd said generally there had been “very high” rates of compliance with the new regulations.
“As ever, of course, there’ll be a small number of people who choose not to adhere to the regulations and, regrettably, we have had to issue some penalties in that space too,” he said.
Police issued 168 fines over Friday, Saturday and Sunday – mostly for individuals in respect of illegal house parties.
“Where people are deliberately flouting or deliberately breaching or recklessly doing so, they can reasonably expect to be penalised,” said Mr Todd.
He added: “I think what the public can expect to see in the coming weeks are more police, in more places, more of the time.”
Mr Todd said greater use of overtime spend was helping the police to navigate the impact of the virus on the PSNI’s workforce.
He said between eight and 10% of officers were away from frontline duty as a result of positive Covid-19 tests or self-isolation requirements.
“It’s not an insignificant impact on our available resource, which is why we’ve been required to reprioritise some of our taskings and spend additional amount of our budget in supporting our frontline capability,” said the senior officer.
Mr Todd said lockdown had seen a reduction in some forms of crime, giving the PSNI some flexibility to divert resources to enforcing Covid-19 regulations.
“It’s a testing time for policing, as it is for all of our emergency service colleagues, but we continue to put our efforts, our resources, into that space to keep people safe, protect the health service and save lives,” he added.