On Thursday night the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, Shaun Sawyer, appeared on the evening news to counter the allegations that his force had been too robust in enforcing coronavirus regulations.
The background to this was that Devon and Cornwall Police has been among the most enthusiastic constabularies when it came to getting out there and engaging with those who may, or may not, have been making the right decisions around travel. Over the four-day Easter weekend its officers spoke to an incredible 5,500 people, warned 960 for failing to follow Covid-19 guidance and issued 169 £60 fines.
While the number fined was tiny in comparison to the number engaged, it was enough to put Devon and Cornwall in the top five forces for enforcement.
Newton Abbot MP Anne-Marie Morris was among those who questioned this approach, which appeared to be in conflict with advice given out by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Policing (CoP), who this month suggested that it was OK to drive to a place of exercise as long as you exercised for a longer period than you travelled.
While Anne-Marie’s concern was understandable – she was worried about the number of her constituents who had to share streets in a town because they could not drive into nearby sparsely populated countryside for a walk – the NPCC’s was less so.
The national advice didn’t take account of different geographies and local variations so what works in an urban force area doesn’t work in a large rural, urban and coastal area in quite the same way and here in Devon and Cornwall you could be compliant with it despite driving for four hours to and from a preferred exercise spot, provided you undertook a five-hour hike.
Clearly that’s not what we want people doing. Such an activity would increase the risk of an incident such as a vehicle breakdown or injury that would necessitate contact with others at a time when that’s precisely what we are trying to avoid. That to my mind flouts the spirit of the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations Act, if not the letter of the law.
I have worked with the Chief Constable for a long time now, and although we do not see eye to eye on every issue this is an area where we stand together. The NPCC’s advice was unhelpful, particularly when applied to large rural force areas where there are fewer officers per square mile. For me it demonstrates how important it is for different forces to be able to interpret and apply legislation as they see fit and for the maximum benefit of their communities. This is why it’s important for Chief Constables and PCCs to have discretion over decisions their own geographical areas.
The advice and ensuing media coverage led to both the force and my office being inundated with further queries on travel, ranging from whether it would be OK for a pregnant woman to drive across the force area to see her sickly father to a saga about whether it was acceptable to use your exercise quota enjoying Cornwall’s famous surf.
Understandable the vast majority of law-abiding people wanted hard and fast answers when in reality there was a grey area defined by what is reasonable. I have therefore tried to avoid disappearing down the rabbithole of giving binary answers to whether I think a particular course of action is acceptable, instead I like to credit our public with some common sense. Deep down I think we all know what constitutes an essential journey, and we understand how we can minimise risk to others by acting responsibly.
Anyone wondering whether they should push the rules should reflect daily on the coronavirus’s deadly toll before making a decision.
The other challenge that our Chief Constable has is that Devon and Cornwall receive more domestic visitors every year than any other force area. Other rural areas will also be facing this challenge at this time of year. While in a regular year we welcome our visitors, this year we have been asking them to #ComeBackLater so our communities and NHS services can cope with the number of coronavirus cases.
To discourage people from visiting over Easter or to see out the lockdown in second homes required a concerted effort and a consistent and simple message to be sent out from our corner of England, namely that we would be speaking to those travelling on our roads from outside the force area, asking them to turn back and fining those who ignored our advice and broke the law.
In the main that message was received loud and clear and, as we head into another bank holiday weekend, those who take to our roads for unnecessary journeys can be assured of one thing – Devon and Cornwall Police takes its job of keeping our communities safe very seriously indeed.