Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd yesterday said police patrols will be beefed up “around beauty spots, resorts and transport hubs” at the weekend.
However, as has been pointed out many times before, the police have no actual powers under the law to force the general public not to travel to such places.
Last Sunday the PSNI had faced some criticism after setting up diversions to deter people from travelling to places like Portrush. And yesterday ACC Todd (pictured) said “we would encourage people not to drive to local beauty spots or popular destinations for daily exercise as others may have the same idea and social distancing may not be achievable”.
Jim Allister, MLA for North Antrim (where many popular beauty spots are) said: “I question the police taking it upon themselves to go further than the regulations. I note they use words like ‘advice’. They have no powers to stop people from going to local beauty spots.
“I think that the zealotry with which they initially sought to police the regulations has undermined confidence in the policing approach, and I think they need to be careful with how they approach these matters... I think there’s scope for confusion, and confusion isn’t a good recipe for anything.”
Michelle O’Neill had said one week ago: “To people that are asking: ‘Can I travel a distance to meet people outdoors whilst observing social distancing?’ Yes you can.
“The changes to the restrictions mean up to six people who aren’t members of the same household can meet outdoors while observing social distancing.”
However, she advised people to limit their journeys and to avoid places where large numbers of people gather.
The PSNI Causeway Coast and Glens Facebook account last night showed a picture of a busy car park in Portrush, with the message: “It’s crowded beyond belief with people who have zero ability to socially distance. We understand that the sun is out and shining but please do not flock to natural beauty spots or beaches where social distancing isn’t an option!”
Some people online concurred, whilst others took the PSNI to task.
A user called Elizabeth Mary said in response to the police: “I’m on the East Strand; yes there are other families here, but no-one, I repeat no-one, is anywhere near anyone else. You can now go and meet with groups of friends from outside your own household... Nanny state isn’t required.”
User Ryan Dodds commented: “Sure there’s no law to say you’re not allowed... so if people wanna take a spin to the port with the kids for a walk then that’s what they will do until stated otherwise by law.”
The law (officially The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (NI) 2020) originally said on March 28 that gatherings of more than two people were banned, but that people can leave home to “exercise either alone or with members of their household”.
It did not specifically bar people from getting in a car and driving somewhere to do this (though it did not specifically permit it, either).
It was updated on May 19 to say people can leave home “to take part in an outdoor gathering consisting of up to six people who aren’t members of the same household – or any number of members of the same household.”
It does not specifically order people to keep two metres apart (though that remains the government advice). In fact, the only place where the two-metre rule appears legally enforceable is at funerals.
The News Letter put it to the PSNI that there is scope for confusion on what people are allowed to do in law.
It responded: “Our message is clear: we urge everyone to adhere to the health protection regulations and follow the advice of our public health partners and the Government about social distancing...
“It is entirely responsible and proper for police to re-enforce important public health messages in advising what behaviour, whilst legal, may yet be ill-judged.
“To illustrate the point, this is analogous to our guidance that you should never drink and drive, notwithstanding that there are proscribed legal limits over which it becomes illegal to do so.”
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