Military help for Covid-19 rules not needed, say police chiefs

The military would be able to help fulfil certain police duties such as office roles and guarding protected sights, Downing Street said.

A soldier working at a coronavirus testing unit
A soldier working at a coronavirus testing unit

Police chiefs have dismissed suggestions troops could be drafted in to free up officers so they can focus on enforcing tougher coronavirus rules.

The Prime Minister hinted at military support for police officers as he announced tougher measures which could be in force for up to six months in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

But police chiefs said military involvement was not anticipated to be needed, as they warned officers would be stepping up patrols in “high-risk areas”.

Boris Johnson said: “We will provide the police and local authorities with the extra funding they need, a greater police presence on our streets, and the option to draw on military support where required to free up the police.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Commons
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Commons (House of Commons)

Among the tougher penalties for those who “brazenly defy” the restrictions, Mr Johnson said businesses could face £10,000 fines for breaking the rules and the penalty for failing to wear a mask will double to £200 for the first offence. The same fine will apply for breaching the so-called rule of six.

Covid-secure guidelines will now become legal obligations for retail, leisure and tourism firms.

And face coverings will also need to be worn by retail staff, taxi passengers and hospitality customers except where seated.

Downing Street said the military would be able to help fulfil certain police duties such as office roles and guarding protected sights to free up officers and would not be granted “additional powers”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “To further free up the police to have a greater presence on our streets they will have the option to draw on military support, where required, using tried and tested mechanisms.

“This would involve the military back-filling certain duties, such as office roles and guarding protected sites, so police officers can be out enforcing the virus response.

“This is not about providing any additional powers to the military, or them replacing the police in enforcement roles, and they will not be handing out fines. It is about freeing up more police officers.”

Police conduct spot checks on passengers at Leicester Railway Station
The Prime Minister said military support could free up police officers to do more (Joe Giddens/PA)

The Ministry of Defence said it had 500 military personnel available to help with “armed guarding duties” if needed by the Home Office, but added: “The military will not be undertaking any public order or enforcement activities.”

But National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt said: “Any military support must be assessed very carefully.

“At the moment, no military involvement is necessary, nor do we anticipate this will be needed.”

And John Apter, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “This is not what policing has asked for and not what it needs.”

Mr Hewitt said a small minority of people “are still choosing to flout the rules and are consciously making decisions which put lives at risk” and should expect action to be taken against them.

“Police will continue to work with their communities and only issue fines as a last resort, however the time for encouraging those who knowingly flout the rules with no sense of guilt about the risks they are presenting has passed,” he said.

“Chiefs will be stepping up patrols in high-risk areas and will proactively work with businesses, licensing authorities and local authorities to ensure the rules are being followed.”

He said members of the public worried about the rules being broken, or who have experienced anti-social behaviour, can report this to the police.

Mr Apter welcomed the promise of funding but said the announcement “lacked any detail”.

He said: “More funding for policing this pandemic is much needed.

“The service needs all the help it can get as financial pressures on forces are increasing day by day – but today’s announcement lacked any detail. We will wait for that before we celebrate too much.”

Police and military have been working together on logistics since the start of the outbreak and this continues to “work well”, he said, but warned: “The announcement has been seized by some as a suggestion that the military will be on streets helping the police to enforce Covid regulations.

“This is not what policing has asked for and not what it needs.”

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