No person in England may leave the place that they are living without reasonable excuse, during the emergency period. What might a reasonable excuse be? Some are listed in the regulations, but if you have to go out and a police officer challenges you, you can explain why and they must decide whether that is “reasonable”.
The regulations are reviewed every three weeks, so on 16 April Dominic Raab announced they would last a further three weeks, and may last months. He must also withdraw parts of the regulations, if those parts are found to be unnecessary. They will next be reviewed on 7 May.
The regulations are here. Paragraph 6 lists some reasonable excuses. Going to work is a reasonable excuse, including voluntary work, when it is not “reasonably possible” to work from home: even if the work is not classified as “essential work”. Shops are closed except those listed in schedule 2 part 3: bike shops, laundrettes, dentists, and car repair shops but not car showrooms, are allowed to open. Businesses listed in part 2, such as hair salons, gyms and playgrounds, have to close. Theatres, concert halls and bingo halls, but not nightclubs, can open to broadcast a performance.
A friend can only attend a funeral if no family member or member of the household of the deceased will be there.
Giving care to vulnerable people is an excuse. Some vulnerable people are listed in paragraph 1- people over 70, “any person who is pregnant” (including trans men and non-binary people! Yay!) and any person with an underlying health condition, some of which are listed in schedule 1. So if someone is not included in that list, you might still argue they are vulnerable, and I think mental health conditions make someone vulnerable. Therefore I argue that visiting to talk to a depressed person is a reasonable excuse to leave your house. Isolation can make mental health conditions worse. Communicating electronically is not the same.
That is my argument for sitting on a park bench, or sunbathing in a park. Being outside is good for depression. There is class privilege here. I am articulate, and sound like a middle class person even if I do not always look like one. So I might try to persuade a police officer that I had a reasonable excuse for sitting on a park bench. Other people might not.
I argue if you go out with a reasonable excuse, doing other things incidentally is lawful. So the Northamptonshire chief constable saying that police could go through a shopping trolley to see all the goods in it were “basic necessities” (including pet food) was simply wrong. You can buy chocolate along with your tinned tomatoes and spaghetti.
The Crown Prosecution Service issued a practical guide on reasonable excuses. It says, There is no need for all a person’s shopping to be basic food supplies; the purchase of snacks and luxuries is still permitted. In general terms, a person has a reasonable excuse to visit the shops which remain open to customers under the Regulations. So even if you went to a permitted shop and only bought chocolate and alcohol, that might be OK, but I would stick in a pint of milk as well to be safe from police questioning.
The regulation says you can go out to “obtain basic necessities,” not “to go shopping”, so the guide says you could pick up surplus basic food from a friend’s house.
The guide says you can buy tools to repair a damaged fence, but not brushes and paint to redecorate a kitchen. That means they could actually look in your trolley, at the hardware store. Again, you could buy essential items, and also get non-essential items incidentally.
You can drive somewhere to go for a walk, they say, if you don’t drive longer than you are walking. This makes sense. If people from separate large towns go to a particular beauty spot, there is a chance for Covid from one town to pass to the other. It is a question of balancing risk. Other people will lawfully be going between the two towns. In France the distance you can go from your home to exercise is one kilometre. The guide says you can stop for lunch while on a long walk- or cycle ride, I would have thought- so they are imagining people being quite far from home.
The guide seems keener on interpreting the given reasons in the regulations, than considering other possible reasons, and possibly it takes a suspicious view. If someone has a row with their partner, and goes away to cool down, Moving to a friend’s address for several days to allow a ‘cooling-off’ following arguments at home is OK. This is explicitly under the “moving house” exemption. Moving out for a few hours, says the guide, is not OK. Possibly, they think people might use “cooling off” as an excuse for visiting friends whenever they wanted. Not every visit to a friend will be spotted by a police officer. But then people are going to allotments, which I think is reasonable, and they are not specifically mentioned.
I note the regulations specify to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm as a reasonable excuse- so if the house is on fire, or to escape a violent partner. Now it’s reasonable to state every excuse they can think of, perhaps, when drafting the regulations, but that this needs stated might indicate the police will question reasons not explicitly stated in the regs.
Don’t make mordant jokes to police officers. Irritated by delay, my friend once told a US border guard that the purpose of her visit was “subverting the government and constitution of the US”, and the official, with a weary sigh, said, “Shall we start again, Sir?” Don’t assume that the police officer is as forebearing. They may be angry and scared.
Before deciding you have committed an offence, police officer has to assess the evidence, which includes what you tell them. Therefore, they should believe you unless they have good reason not to. Cycling for exercise, I noticed a police van prominently marked ANPR. Then they consider whether your excuse is “reasonable”. If not they can tell you to go home, or take you home using reasonable force if necessary. If you are out without reasonable excuse you have committed an offence, and they can issue a fixed penalty notice. The penalty is £60, £30 if you pay within 14 days. The second fixed penalty notice is £120, the third £240, the fourth £480, the fifth £960.
This means that if an officer simply tells you what you should not do- don’t sit on that bench- they are giving advice, as they are allowed, rather than investigating an offence. Listening politely and saying as little as possible is a good tactic, in order to avoid such an investigation.
If a child is going out the police can order their parents to keep them in and the person responsible for the child is responsible for enforcement.
I don’t want to spread this disease. I have vulnerable friends and relatives. So we should all behave responsibly and not go out unless necessary, because going out might spread the disease. However there may be reasonable excuses for going out which the police don’t recognise.
Here’s a second world war poster to make us feel all British: