Coronavirus laws still make it illegal to gather in groups of more than two, police warn ahead of hot weekend

Lizzie Dearden
Police officers in a patrol car move sunbathers on in Greenwich Park: PA

It remains illegal to socialise in groups of more than two in public under coronavirus laws, police have warned as the UK heads into another hot and sunny weekend.

Boris Johnson announced that lockdown rules will be eased to allow gatherings of up to six people, but the changes will not come into force until Monday.

Until then, the health protection regulations give police the power to arrest or fine anyone for “participating in a gathering in a public place of more than two people” except for essential work purposes or if they are from the same household.

The law also makes it illegal to be outside “without reasonable excuse”, although the list of exemptions been expanded.

In England, people are allowed to meet one person from another household on their own, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced different laws.

The timing of Mr Johnson’s announcement on Thursday was questioned after data showed that lockdown violations spike on warm and sunny days.

With temperatures expected to soar to 26C this weekend, there were fears that people would flood to meet groups of friends and relatives in spite of the continued restrictions.

Some police officers previously reported that people flouting the rules had brought up Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings, who was not fined after appearing to break coronavirus laws.

Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, accused the government of making a “series of mistimed and badly explained messages”.

“By pre-announcing changes to lockdown ahead of a tempting weekend of sunshine, the prime minister must have known he was going to create a situation that is difficult to police,” she added.

“The messaging looks like it was rushed forward to help ministers in a difficult position.”

Police officers in a patrol car move sunbathers on in Greenwich Park (PA)

Labour councillor Ian Gilbert, from Southend in Essex, said the timing of a number of Government announcements “haven’t been helpful” for managing public spaces.

“I think the whole way that the debate has gone over the past week, with the business about Mr Cummings and what have you, has all unfortunately contributed to a general sense that lockdown is over,” he added.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We’ve said that wherever possible we would give a period of notice in advance of changes being made, ideally 48 hours or more, which is true in this respect.”

Rural forces that police beauty spots, including popular beaches and national parks, have repeatedly appealed for people to stay away to protect local residents from infection.

Authorities have warned that normal lifeguard patrols are not in operation and facilities, including many car parks and public toilets, remain closed.

Under the new rules coming into force on Monday, people in England will be able to meet in private gardens in England for the first time since lockdown started.

But Downing Street admitted that police do not have the power to enter homes to check whether more than six people are meeting and if they are abiding by social distancing rules.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “They have the power to enter a home separately if they believe serious criminality is taking place, but in terms of the regulations it does not allow them to enter private properties.

“I’m sure that members of the public will show common sense and will want to abide by the rules.”

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said: “There is still a responsibility on us all to abide by the regulations set in each part of the UK, and to follow public health guidance as best we can when out and about.

“Throughout this pandemic, officers have only enforced as a last resort and have taken a common sense approach, applying their discretion and judgement when engaging with the public.”

New figures released on Friday showed that almost 17,000 fines have been handed out by police in England and Wales since the lockdown began in March.

Since restrictions were eased in England on 13 May, only 841 fines have been issued by officers in the country, where default fines have been increased from £60 to £100.

The NPCC said the majority of penalties had been handed to men aged between 18 and 24, at weekends and “during periods of warmer weather”.

The Met Office revealed on Friday that the UK recorded the sunniest spring since records began in 1929, and this month is set to be the driest May for 124 years.

More than 573 hours of sunshine were seen between 1 March and 27 May, beating the previous record of 555 hours in 1948.

The sunny weather is forecast to continue until the end of the month, with temperatures expected to reach highs of 26C in some parts of the UK this weekend and rising further next week.

Additional reporting by PA

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