As the UK enters the second week of the third national lockdown, government officials are puzzling over how to ensure a fed-up public follow the rules.
The answer, according to some officials, is an “enforcement week”, with No. 10 yesterday kicking off a fresh effort to improve compliance across the population as Covid-19 case rates reach crisis level.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick is leading the charge to stop the spread, warning would-be rule breakers that they are “increasingly likely to face fines”. In an article published in The Times today, she adds: “It is preposterous to me that anyone could be unaware of our duty to do all we can to stop the spread of the virus.”
As well as threatening to fine anyone caught flouting the rules, Dick is also urging the government to provide “clarity” over the definition of local exercise in England. Her call comes as Boris Johnson faces scrutiny after being spotted on a bike ride on Sunday at London’s Olympic Park, seven miles from Downing Street.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Dick said that “anything that brings greater clarity would be a good thing”. Ministers should consider writing a maximum distance for daily exercise into law to aid police enforcement, she added.
Dick spoke out come as government officials told Politico’s London Playbook that attention in No. 10 has momentarily shifted away from proposals to introduce new restrictions, with the focus instead on “driving compliance with the existing rules”.
“We are doing a lot of public messaging to push that. And those existing rules are the absolute limit of what people should be doing rather than something to try to flex,” a Department of Health official told the site, while another Whitehall insider described the coming days as “enforcement week”.
Local police chiefs are hammering home the compliance message across regional media today, after Policing Minister Kit Malthouse told Sky News this morning that “a small minority of people are flouting the rules”.
The rule breakers are “not taking it seriously, and they will cost people their lives”, he warned. “They have to realise their responsibility on this front.”
Referring to the debate last month over what constituted a “substantial meal” under then rules only allowing pubs to serve alcohol with food, Malthouse added: “I understand this is a sort of Scotch egg moment where people are searching for loopholes and problems in the rules.”
Ministers’ worries about public compliance appear out of step with apparent widespread support for implementing a third national lockdown. A YouGov poll of 4,340 people conducted a day after Johnson announced the rules at the start of last week found that the shutdown was supported by 85% of respondents, of whom 62% “strongly” supported the measures.
Although this level of backing was slightly lower than the 93% who supported the first national lockdown back in March, just 11% of Britons said they were opposed to the current measures.
Meanwhile, more than half of Britons (53%) quizzed by the polling company a week ago said that they are “very” or “somewhat” scared of contracting Covid-19 – placing the UK second behind Italy as the most concerned countries in Europe.
And recent YouGov polling also found that a majority of the public (63%) thought it was very or fairly likely that NHS hospitals will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks as infection rates continue to climb.
However, an analysis by Sky News of data from transport app Citymapper tells a different story than that suggested by the YouGov surveys.
While “movement has fallen” since the latest lockdown was announced, “it isn’t down to the levels of March and April”, writes the broadcaster’s technology correspondent Rowland Manthorpe. “Journeys during the first lockdown fell to less than 10% of pre-pandemic levels, and stayed that way for days.”
But this time around, mobility has fallen to “a little under 20% of pre-pandemic levels”, he continues.
Data like this is driving the concern in Downing Street about observance of the new rules and is likely to result in further calls for the public to “stay at home” – or face the toughest restrictions yet.