This Commons Library briefing paper describes the law enforcing the UK's coronavirus lockdown. It discusses police enforcement of the lockdown and legal commentary of the lockdown rules.

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This is a fast-moving area and the paper should be read as correct at the time of publication (18 May 2020).

On Monday 23 March 2020 the Prime Minister addressed the nation to announce extraordinary measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Prime Minister asked the public to stay at home and said that the police would have powers to issue fines to those who left home without a reasonable excuse. The address effectively put the UK into ‘lockdown’.

The law

On Thursday 26 and Saturday 28 March regulations were made across the UK which gave the police (and others if designated) powers to enforce the lockdown. The regulations have three main effects:

  • They significantly restrict the free movement of people by making it an offence to be leave home without a “reasonable excuse” and (with some exceptions) to gather in groups of more than two.
  • They require all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment businesses to close. Restaurants, pubs and cafés are permitted to operate takeaway services.
  • They give police officers powers to forcibly return those who refuse to comply with the lockdown to their homes. The police also have powers to issue Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) to those who commit an offence under the regulations.

Reviewing the lockdown

On the 10 May the Prime Minister addressed the nation again to announce plans to “modify” the lockdown measures as part of the Government’s plan “both to beat the virus and provide the first sketch of a road map for reopening society”. This included an immediate “change of emphasis” to the Government’s lockdown guidance on exercise and work. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement amendments were made to the lockdown regulations in England to allow people to spend time outside for recreation. The regulations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not changed to this effect.

Policing the lockdown

The police have adopted a co-operative approach to policing the lockdown. Those who break the rules are encouraged to return home before officers’ resort to enforcement. In the first month of the lockdown police in England issued around 9,000 FPNs for offences under the regulations.   

Criticism of Government messaging

Whilst the public health necessity for the lockdown has been largely unchallenged there has been some criticism about how the lockdown is being communicated to the public. Some have said Government messaging and guidance has caused confusion on what is now legal under the lockdown.

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