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Coronavirus Act: police powers and potentially infected persons

By Anna Leathem  |  03.04.2020

As the spread of coronavirus continues and the confirmed number of deaths increases in the UK, the government introduced emergency legislation which received Royal Assent on 25 March 2020. It introduces new powers and new offences to contain and slow the virus. We consider the main provisions below concerning police powers and infected persons.

There are three main powers in relation to potentially infected persons:

  • To direct or remove a person for screening and assessment purposes.
  • To require a person to be screened and assessed.
  • To impose requirements and restrictions after screening and assessment.

When exercising each of these powers, the officer must have reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is potentially infectious and must consider it necessary and proportionate to exercise the power in the interests of that person, the protection of other people or the maintenance of public health. Furthermore, the officer must inform the person of the reason for the power being exercised and that it is an offence to fail to comply or to abscond, and of any time limits. The consequences of failure to comply are addressed below.

Powers to direct or remove persons

If a public health officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that a person is potentially infectious, they can request a police officer to remove that person to a place for screening and assessment purposes. To remove a person, the police officer must have reasonable grounds to suspect that a person is potentially infectious.

Who determines this?

A public health officer, police officer and immigration officer, and any other ‘officer of the Secretary of State’.

Whilst the Act does not specify what reasonable suspicion is, in relation to arrest, officers must have reasonable objective grounds of suspicion based on facts or information. For the purposes of this Act, this may be satisfied where the police officer is given information from a medical professional or another police officer. Each police officer will likely have to form their own reasonable suspicion in any event.

Can the police forcibly remove me?

The police can use reasonable force where necessary when exercising these powers. What is reasonable in the circumstances will depend on the urgency and need to remove the potentially infected person for screening or assessment. It will also depend on the safety of the individual, police officers and other detainees or citizens.

Powers at places of screening and assessment

A public health officer may require a person suspected to be infectious to be screened and assessed. Associated with this, other requirements may be imposed on that person. These can include, and are not limited to, providing a biological sample or providing information about travel history and individuals with whom they have had contact.

How long can I remain at a place of screening and assessment?

A police officer may keep the potentially infected person at a place of screening or assessment until such a time as a public health officer can exercise its functions in relation to that person. Whilst that person cannot be kept for longer than 24 hours, this can be extended by a further period of 24 hours by a superintendent.

Powers after assessment

Powers after assessment mainly concern those powers conferred upon the public health officer. However, requirements and restrictions can be enforced by police officers.

A public health officer may impose requirements and restrictions on a person who:

  • Tests positive for Covid-19; or
  • Produces an inconclusive result; or
  • Is still considered potentially infectious by a public health officer.

What requirements can be imposed on me?

These requirements may include, but are not limited to, further screening, remaining in a specified place for a specific period, and remaining at a specified place in isolation from others for a specific period. Restrictions may be placed on that person’s movements or travel, activities, and contact with other persons.

How long can I be detained for?

The period in which someone can be required to remain or have a restriction placed upon them cannot exceed 14 days. After imposing a requirement to remain or a restriction, the public health officer must assess that person within 48 hours and reconsider any requirements or restrictions imposed. The period may be extended for a further specified period if, before the end of the initial 14 days, the public health officer reasonably suspects that the person will be infectious at the end of that period and the requirement or restriction is still necessary and proportionate.

The requirement to remain at a specific place may be enforced by a police officer by the following:

  • Removing that person to the place
  • Keeping the person at that place
  • Taking the person to custody and returning them to that place if they abscond

Can I appeal the decision?

A requirement or restriction may be appealed against to a magistrates’ court. On appeal, the court may either confirm, quash, vary or extend the requirement or restriction.

Failure to comply – offences

A failure by a person, without reasonable excuse, to comply with any requirement or restriction imposed on them by direction from a public health officer or police officer will be a crime punishable by a fine not exceeding Level 3. It is also an offence to abscond where that person has been removed by a police officer. Furthermore, if a person is found guilty of this offence, this will appear on their criminal record.

Given the urgency of the coronavirus outbreak, the law is evolving very quickly to meet the demands of the crisis. We will continue to review any changes proposed by the government and understand that this is a challenging time for many of our clients. We are here to support you so please do not hesitate to contact Sonn Macmillan Walker if you have any queries in respect of representation at court or at the police station. 

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