POLICE patrols ensuring people are abiding by the lockdown across the New Forest and Christchurch have been accused of being overzealous but officers said they are only trying to protect the public.
Neither the Hampshire nor Dorset forces have revealed how many fines have been issued so far under new powers to enforce the government restrictions to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
However, despite reporting the majority seemed to be complying, officers said they had to disperse several people who had made non-essential journeys. These even included someone who admitted having symptoms of the virus.
Under new powers passed by parliament, police can issue those who flout the lockdown with £60 fixed penalties, which will be lowered to £30 if paid within 14 days. Second-time offenders face £120 penalties, which will then be doubled for each repeat offence
Failure to pay fixed penalties could result in court action, while those who persistently refuse to comply could be arrested.
Officers patrolling Christchurch were issued with masks after a woman they stopped last Friday morning told them she had coronavirus.
A post afterwards on the Christchurch Police UK Facebook page said: “This is serious guys. We have just sent a female home who should be isolating, as they have the virus. Please stay home and save lives.”
Police responded on social media to allegations officers were being heavy-handed and misinterpreting the government restrictions after a confrontation with a motorist in the New Forest.
Some were questioning whether the guidelines actually stated people should not drive to beauty spots to exercise.
The Waterside team revealed on Facebook and Twitter that a man became aggressive when he was given a penalty ticket for obstructing an access gate.
It said this prevented a Forestry England van gaining entry and could have stopped emergency services had they been needed.
A post alongside a picture of the confrontation on the Waterside Police Twitter account said: “Male from Weston given penalty ticket for obstruction, becoming angry and refusing to accept information given on lockdown. Selfish behaviour will cost lives and impact on NHS.”
But a number of commenters accused the officers of intimidating the motorist and wrongfully telling him and others that people should not be driving to parks or inclosures to exercise.
One tweeted: “So you weren’t initially attempting to enforce a made-up law? That rightfully agitated the chap?
“And then moved onto a different offence when you realised you were getting nowhere and your intimidation wasn’t working against someone aware of the law?”
Another member of the public warned that officers could end up facing legal challenges for carrying out enforcements or issuing fines to people who were, in fact, following the government guidelines.
Responding to the allegations, the police team called for people to check the government guidelines if they believed “the government have got the situation wrong”.
It also emphasised the penalty ticket had been issued to the driver for obstruction, while the lockdown legislation was “politely explained” but not used on this occasion.
“Three police officers attended this incident due to the unacceptable behaviour of the driver who looked to control and dictate to his advantage.
“Hampshire police wish to educate and encourage people to act responsibly in this national emergency but will use enforcement powers where this fails. Teamwork will mean that everyone can get back to normal quicker.”
The official government regulations state that apart from essential shopping, medical needs and work that cannot be done from home, people can only go out for one form of exercise a day. This should be done alone or with members of the same household.
Further advice is given regarding whether people can drive to a national park or other green space to walk.
This says: “We advise you to stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily.”
Officers patrolling on Saturday reported seeing many vehicles parked on verges, warning the Forest is a fragile environment which can easily be damaged.
“Please don’t drive to exercise,” the Waterside Police tweet said. “Join rest of nation #StayHomeSaveLives to avoid cemetery!”
Responding to reports of people congregating around Ballard Lake and Ballard Woods in New Milton last Friday, patrols said they dispersed several groups found sitting on benches.
Officers also took to Facebook to urge those taking precautions against the virus to dispose of their waste more responsibly after finding discarded disposable gloves near a bin at the site.
A motorcyclist faced a fine and penalty points after being caught with no licence or insurance as police dealt with a group of youths who had met up in a Holbury street on Monday.
The Hampshire Police Federation has spoken out about a rise in reported incidents of officers across the county being spat at by offenders during the coronavirus crisis.
Expressing his disgust at the incidents, federation chairman Alex Charge argued that perpetrators should face prison sentences.
“It is just so disgraceful that in this climate where police officers are out trying to protect the public, people are spitting at them and threatening to spit at them and give them and potentially their families Covid-19,” he said.
In Christchurch, police responding to reports of people fishing at Stanpit Marsh on Monday also had to disperse a group of youths.
Following a patrol in Hythe on Saturday, officers praised its response to the lockdown, observing a small amount of people out and adhering to social distancing while in good spirits.
The Lymington and New Milton neighbourhood policing team was pleased to report its patrol of Milford and Barton last Friday resulted in only a couple of requests to move on.
This was a dramatic improvement on the previous day when they had reported a “sheer volume” of people out enjoying the sunshine.
Hampshire police declined to say how many fines had been issued but said: “Our position has always been to engage with our communities, explain why we want them to do what we need them to do, and encourage them to comply.
“The vast majority of people are fully complying with the guidance and advice. Our officers and staff have so far seen a fantastic response from the public and we would like to thank people for that.
“We will always seek to engage, explain and encourage with individuals before enforcing any fixed penalty notices to those not adhering to the new measures.”
Although unable to release details of the numbers of fixed penalties, a Dorset Police spokesperson told the A&T officers were engaging and educating the public on the new restrictions.
They said this action was being taken to ensure people stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
“We would strongly urge the public to follow the advice issued and stick with the spirit of the rules,” the spokesperson continued.
“On the whole, the people of Dorset have been adhering to the restrictions but there are still some who are making unnecessary journeys.”
This article was updated on 3rd April with a comment from Hampshire police.