Lancashire's top cops 'unavailable' to talk as ex-chief says of Covid fines: 'We police by consent in a democracy and we have to remember that'

Police officers were called to a resort pub at 4.30am after neighbours reported music and feared it was still open.

Monday, 11th January 2021, 3:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th January 2021, 9:19 am

Three men were found inside The Bridge, in Lytham Road, South Shore, yesterday but explained they live there – with cops leaving without issuing a fine or making an arrest.

Although the force said the “matter has been referred to our licensing department”, publican Steven Whalley yesterday denied breaking any rules, saying: “The police left as there was no wrongdoing. Only people who reside in the venue were here.

"The neighbours had called the police as they could hear music, which the police also confirmed they could only hear if they put their eat to the door – so again, no wrongdoing.”

The Bridge pub in Lytham Road, South Shore

It comes after officers spent the weekend chasing down alleged lockdown breaches – and amid concerns of a heavy-handed crackdown up and down the country.

People were found training inside a gym in Roman Way, Preston, at 6.15pm on Friday, with an investigation opened and the venue watched throughout the weekend, police said.

And seven were found inside The Old Hall pub in Heysham Road, Heysham, at 11pm on Friday, including four who live there. Two were “given advice” and left, while one was arrested on suspicion of being drunk and disorderly.

He was later de-arrested and was due to be quizzed – though the landlord was handed a Covid fine and reported to licensing chiefs.

Lancashire’s Deputy Chief Constable Terry Woods said in a tweet: “Sadly busy weekend concerning blatant Covid breaches. Hundreds of incidents reported by the public. Reports of pubs, a gym & even someone filming staff at testing centre. Summary-not enough people staying home, some stretching excuses meanwhile NHS & public services are creaking folk”

Det Ch Con (DCC) Woods was “unavailable” for an interview today, police said, while the force failed to put any other senior officers up for a press interview.

A spokesman said more than 100 tickets were handed out over the weekend, with DCC Woods saying in a provided written statement: "The lockdown rules are in place to save lives and stop the NHS being overwhelmed.

"Nurses and doctors across Lancashire are already under huge pressure and we all have to follow the regulations to help them.

“We know how tough it is right now and that many people are exhausted.

"We’re confident though that the vast majority of people will take personal responsibility and do the right thing by sticking to both the law and the associated advice/guidance.

"We are proud of the county’s response all the way from March 2020 and we want to thank everyone for playing their part.

"We’ll continue to take a common sense and proportionate approach as we have since the pandemic started.

"We’ve done our best to help people follow the rules and show compassion for those in difficulty whilst also enforcing the law where the public

would rightly expect us to.

"We will carry on engaging with people and being balanced but where people deliberately flout and disregard the law they can expect to have enforcement action taken against them very quickly, including being fined.

“Restrictions on social mixing remain in force and we are really clear that large gatherings, house parties and events which break the law must not take place – they have the highest risk of harm and we will take immediate action against them.

“We will get through this but we need everyone to pull together and do their bit.”

A number of questions put to the police this morning went unanswered but late last week, DCC Woods said that, while officers will be using their discretion and “decent” people need not worry, they won’t be shying away from fining blatant and repeat offenders.

Police bosses elsewhere acknowledged some officers “may get it wrong” when enforcing the restrictions and that people are becoming “fed up” with ongoing national lockdown measures.

Hardyal Dhindsa, police and crime commissioner of Derbyshire Police, said officers had a “very difficult job in really trying circumstances” due to the “ever-changing” Covid-19 restrictions.

It comes after the force handed out £200 fines to two women who drove separately to go for a walk at a remote beauty spot situated around five miles from their homes.

Mr Dhindsa said the incident “could have been dealt with differently” and that the force was “big enough to apologise” if a review found that the officers had acted in error.

The rules say people can leave their home for exercise once a day and, if they are on their own, can exercise with one person from another household. “You should not travel outside your local area”, Government rules state without defining ‘local’.

When asked if police being “overzealous” could put people off complying with coronavirus restrictions, Mr Dhindsa replied: “It could be,” with roads busier during this lockdown than in the first, which started in March last year.

Bob Eastwood, a former police chief in Lancashire, said a lawyer examined the circumstances surrounding the fined Derbyshire women, who were carrying coffees, and found the “police have done the right thing”.

“However, I don’t agree with that sort of enforcement,” he said.

“When there are ambiguous areas such as going out for a coffee and walk near a friend, or you are out and you talk to somebody else, then advice should be given.”

Mr Eastwood said officers should be focusing on places where people can congregate, such as when gyms and pubs remain open in flagrant breaches.

He added: “We are not an autocratic society. We police by consent in a democracy and we have to remember that. Stopping members of the public walking with a coffee and friend may be right legally, but morally? Is it really required? People should be given the benefit of the doubt and advice.”

While Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that “every flex can be fatal” as he backed more stringent enforcement of the lockdown by police, England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said that, although the “new variant undoubtedly makes every situation slightly more dangerous than it was”, the risk outdoors “remains low” providing the rules are followed.

“It still remains the case that it’s much lower transmission outdoors provided people keep their distance,” he said.

“If people for example are crowded together in a queue outdoors, if they’re really huddled together round a market stall or something that is a risk with this virus and in that situation there might be some logic to people thinking about wearing masks.”

The majority of outbreaks examined by Public Health England last week came from care homes, where 749 incidents were recorded.

Some 166 came from workplaces, 79 from hospitals, 33 from educational settings such as schools and 11 from food outlets. Some 257 were from other settings.

Devon and Cornwall Police deputy chief constable Paul Netherton warned people are getting “fed up” of lockdown restrictions and compliance has dropped.

“What’s happening is people are beginning to flout the rules, they are beginning to think ‘how can I get away with the rules?’” he said.

When asked whether it was harder to get people to comply with rules in the current lockdown compared to the previous two, he said: “Yes, I think people are beginning to get fed up with it.

“I can understand that but we have to be firm, we have to save lives, we have to make sure people are keeping apart, isolating and staying at home.”

Rachel Hanley, chairman of the Lancashire Police Federation, called on the public to support officers, who she said face an “almost impossible task” – as well as the constant threat of infection.

She said: “The new measures have come as a huge blow to people who were just starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is no different for our colleagues who live and work in the affected areas.

“The practicalities of policing this latest change in regulations will be challenging, but policing will do all it can to keep the public safe, but we need the public to support us.

"As per the current guidance, officers will be doing all they can to encourage people to do the right thing without resorting to enforcement.

“Parts of the new regulations will be difficult if not almost impossible to enforce and the already stretched service will once again be taking the brunt of people’s frustrations. Officers are regularly faced with being spat at and offenders are using Covid as a weapon, which is vile.”

She continued: “Despite many of our members being on the front line dealing with vulnerable people, there are no plans yet to prioritise vaccinations for officers.

"We call upon the Government to rethink this urgently.

"This is not about putting officers ahead of the most vulnerable and elderly, or frontline NHS staff, but without the vaccine there is a real danger that more officers will contract the virus, be off sick from work, spread it to their families and members of the public and thereby threaten the resilience of the service.”

Some experts have said the current lockdown measures are not strict enough, in the face of the more transmissible variant which has spread rapidly in many parts.

Clive Grunshaw, Lancashire's Police and Crime Commissioner said: "Throughout the last ten months, the message from the chief constable [Andy Rhodes] and I has been that policing powers will only be used as a last resort, with officers continuing to engage with and educate people.

"This pandemic has been a challenging and often frightening time for people and the rising rate of coronavirus infection across the country, alongside the national lockdown in place to tackle it, sees us all having to continue playing our part to protect the NHS and save lives.

"People found ignoring police advice are putting themselves and others in danger and officers have not hesitated to use the new powers robustly when faced with the relatively small number of people who have ignored the rules.

"Restrictions on social mixing remain in force and the force are really clear that large gatherings, house parties and events which break the law must not take place – they have the highest risk of harm and Lancashire police will not hesitate to take immediate action against them.

"With vaccination programmes stepping up I am hopeful that there is an end in sight to the type of restrictions that have become all too familiar to us all.

However for now, social distancing remains our best weapon in this fight, and it's crucial we all understand complying with the rules right now is especially important as we see the pressure building on the NHS.

"There are going to be more tough weeks ahead, but I’m proud of how the majority of residents in Lancashire have adapted to this crisis, following the Government guidance and kept themselves and each other safe."

POLICE OFFICERS RAISE THEIR OWN CONCERNS

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner used Twitter to seek the views of police officers and got them off around 20.

He described being told of “some common themes”, with the first being “plenty of embarrassment about the ‘over enforcement’ (i.e. enforcing the guidance not the law) of the regulations”, and shared a comment from an anonymous officer from London.

They said: “As an [redacted] in the Met Police, I am ashamed and embarrassed in how some of the more northern constabularies have behaved.

“Worryingly – in the last week – I’ve seen signs of sabre-rattling within the Met, and fear more public own goals.”

Another said they were “glad to have avoided some of the embarrassments seen by neighbourhood forces’ over-zealous targeting of walkers, etc.”

And a third said: “Cops need to be properly briefed and have decent leadership to guide them. Both of these appear to be lacking some parts. I cringe at some of the reports in media where cops are attempting to enforce guidance not law.”

And a fourth added: “Not all of us are officiously chasing joggers – this is the biggest infringement on human rights ever – we recognise this and need public support, now and in the future.”

Other concerns raised anonymously included the difficulty of enforcement, stress and low morale, and how enforcement is light compared to other nations.

THE RULES COULD BE MADE EVEN TOUGHER YET

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi raised concerns that people are not complying with lockdown rules closely enough in supermarkets and when exercising amid suggestions the restrictions may need to be toughened.

As the Government launched a drive to ensure the public abide by the coronavirus rules, Mr Zahawi said he is worried that social interactions are taking place in parks under the cover of exercise and masks are not being worn inside shops, which may be becoming too crowded.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty urged the public to “stay at home unless you absolutely have to” as the next few weeks will be “worst weeks of the pandemic”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly discussed the prospect of introducing tougher controls to ensure the public abide by the restrictions, with the new highly-contagious variant raising the stakes.

As mass vaccination sites opened yesterday, Mr Zahawi was unable to assure that the current restrictions are sufficient and raised concerns of people not complying with the rules.

“We don’t want to use tougher measures, the lockdown is tough, schools are shut, but it is important to remember this virus loves social interactions,” he said.

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