Patrols dedicated to enforcing laws designed to limit the spread of coronavirus will be on the streets of the county and responding to reports from day one of the stricter measures.
Deputy chief constable Terry Woods told a media briefing that the “very small percentage of people that deliberately go out of their way” to flout the regulations would not be warned – but fined.
He cited examples in recent days where breaches of existing rules had attracted the maximum financial penalties – £10,000 for an illegal rave in Darwen and £1,000 for a Chorley couple who failed to self-isolate after returning from a foreign destination which was not on the country’s travel corridor list.
DCC Woods said that the tough approach would continue – with “checks” on those required to quarantine after returning from abroad. He added that a similar stance would be taken in enforcing the new “rule of six”.
“We’re a neighbourhood policing force and that’s the style we will always keep. However, for the 0.1 percent of people who are habitually disobeying the regulations, or those who have gone out of their way to disobey [them], there will be a shift in policing stance – we will move straight to enforcement.
“For the rest of the population, we will engage, encourage and educate – but for the 0.1 percent who are causing issues for the rest, we will be enforcing through fines.”
DCC Woods – who has led the policing response to the pandemic and spent several months as chair of the Lancashire Resilience Forum – said he and his officers were “really grateful” to the vast majority of Lancashire residents who had attempted to stick to the rules since the outbreak began.
“I firmly believe that those people – which is the bulk – are behind us. They want us to take action against those who are deliberately making things worse for the rest – and that’s what they can expect.”
The Lancashire force is also preparing how to deal with the impact of students returning to universities, should it prove necessary – and the temptation to party as though they had not embarked on adult life during a pandemic.
DCC Woods said he believed that most would be “very responsible”, but added: “The reality is that these are young people [who] are away from home – most for the first time.
“There will definitely be an element that do party and exceed the numbers and we’ll take that on a case-by-case basis. We will deal with each incident with common sense and fairness.
“Do I think that some of the parties will be that excessive that fixed penalty notices are issues? I hope not, but the reality is I’m expecting a few.
“But I do think the vast bulk of young people will take on board what we’re saying and those who do exceed [the limit] will not have done it particularly deliberately and we’ll take a common sense approach.”
The police warnings came as Lancashire’s director of public health said that there was now “widespread community transmission” of coronavirus in those parts of the county where cases are rising significantly.
However, there has not been any change to the localised restrictions currently in force, following a weekly review by the government.
Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi told reporters that people without coronavirus symptoms should continue to get themselves tested in those areas of Lancashire – including Preston and the east of the county – where community testing stations have been set up for that purpose. It comes after the health secretary this week appeared to blame a lack of capacity on people seeking tests even though they did not feel unwell.
“We need to test more people to find where the virus is hiding [in areas with higher rates] to disrupt the transmission,” said Dr. Karunanithi, adding that he had asked the government to classify Lancashire as a priority area for testing so that it was not rationed as it had been elsewhere.
Figures published on Friday show that the Covid case rate has surged over the past week in Preston (99.2 per 100,000 people), Blackburn with Darwen (96.9), Hyndburn (90.1) and Burnley (90.0) – which are all in the top ten worst-affected parts of the country.
Dr. Karunanithi said that it was unsurprising to find cases in recently-reopened schools in the county, because of the background level of infection – but stressed that any incidences were being well-managed.
He added that “meticulous planning” had been put in place ahead of the return to universities.
“We are preparing [to enable] students to have an enjoyable experience, but a safe experience as well – not just within the universities themselves, but the night-time economy and [during] fresher’s week.
“There are very well-rehearsed procedures from [dealing with] accommodation to supporting students – but if testing capacity becomes a constraint that will hamper [our efforts].”
The public health boss also warned that there were “worrying signs” of an increase in the proportion of over-65s being affected by the recent rises in cases across the county – after they originally appeared restricted largely to younger age groups – as well as a “very small” increase in hospitalisations.
“There is every likelihood that if we don’t get the guidance followed and people who are symptomatic aren’t staying home and participating in the test and trace programme, this will spill over into the vulnerable population There is still a large proportion of [people who haven’t] had the virus, so we are still susceptible.
“None of us is safe until it is safe for all of us – and there is quite a lot of virus around, so we need to do our part.
“[This is] not about restricting us, it’s about restricting opportunities for the virus. This is going to be really important until we have a breakthrough in term of a vaccine or some sort of medical advancement.”
Although he appealed for people to continue to follow the guidance on social distancing, hand hygiene and face coverings, Dr. Karunanithi said it was important not to “point the finger”.
“It’s not just people relaxing [their guard] – it’s also about the conditions we create as a society and a government to make it safe for people to come out.
“It’s an equal partnership between the citizen and the state – and it’s a really tricky balance.”