A police chief has said his force is only “a few days away” from introducing measures such as road blocks and searching shopping trolleys, as people continue to flout coronavirus regulations.
Northamptonshire Police Chief Constable Nick Adderley said a “three-week grace period” is over in the county and the force will now be issuing fines and arresting people breaking the rules.
He said further measures will also be implemented should people continue to flout the regulations, including “marshalling” supermarkets and checking the items in baskets and trolleys.
The comments were described as “outrageous” by civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, which compared the measures with a “police state”.
Despite Mr Adderley’s comments, the force later sent out a tweet which read: “We absolutely will not be searching people’s shopping trolleys in Northamptonshire.”
Mr Adderley said forces are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” when it comes to policing the new rules, and he added that Government guidance on how to police the rules “could be even clearer”.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, he said: “I really need to emphasise the point, this is about saving people’s lives, this is the really serious end of what we do.
“The role of the police is to preserve lives and protect property and we have to do that and we will do that.
“If things don’t improve, and we don’t get the compliance we would expect, then the next stage will be road blocks and it will be stopping people to ask why they are going, where they’re going.
“This is about reasonableness and if people are not reasonable in terms of the journeys and the trips they are taking, they are going to fall foul of the law.
“We will not, at this stage, be setting up road blocks. We will not, at this stage, start to marshal supermarkets and checking the items in baskets and trolleys to see whether it’s a legitimate, necessary item.
“But again, be under no illusion, if people do not heed the warnings and the pleas I’m making today, we will start to do that.”
He stressed the force is “only a few days away” from that point.
On the clarity of Government guidance on policing the regulations, Mr Adderley said: “The law itself in terms of the five or six points that have come out in terms of the Coronavirus Bill – they are quite simple in terms of their narrative.
“But the interpretation of that is very, very difficult.
“The issue about what is a necessary item, only go out for necessities – what is a necessity?
“If we’re stopping somebody because they’ve bought a barbecue set or they’ve bought a child’s toy, you could argue that’s not necessary.
“On the other hand, you could argue it absolutely is necessary – because in terms of the mental health and trying to keep people entertained over this period of lockdown, that is very necessary.
“So the nuances and the interpretation is really ambiguous, that’s why I’m saying to officers, use your common sense, use your discretion.
“I think the guidance could be even clearer, but it’s where do you draw the line?”
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The suggestion of police rummaging through people’s shopping trolleys is outrageous.
“It would be completely disproportionate for police to start investigating shopping baskets or stopping every car at road checks, and there’s no legal basis for them to do so.
“You’d think police have far more important work to do. This public health crisis requires public co-operation, not a police state.
“Threats of unlawful and heavy-handed policing remain a daily occurrence and urgently need to be reined in.”
This comes as forces across England and Wales are urging people to stay at home, with good weather expected over the Easter weekend.