Ministers and police chiefs have been warned the ban on Tier 4 Christmas visits is “unenforceable” despite stepping up patrols by officers at rail stations and on bordersto stop the spread of the new mutant Covid virus.
Officials from the Police Federation, who represent rank and file officers, said there were no powers to prevent people travelling or stop cars to check if motorists and their passengers were on an “unlawful” Christmas visit.
The warning came as Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, condemned “totally irresponsible” Londoners who packed stations on Saturday night to flee the capital after Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for almost 16 million people in southern England.
He said police must stop people getting on trains or into cars to travel out of Tier 4 areas to prevent the spread of the new highly infectious strain of Covid-19. “Of course. It’s the police’s responsibility to police the law.”
However, frontline police officers warned they could only enforce the rules and fine offenders for travelling if it could be proved they were not on essential trip for work, education, medical reasons or other exemptions.
“It’s heavily reliant on public compliance. The restriction isn’t on travelling, it’s on leaving the house (without reasonable excuse as defined),” said one policing source.
“The more reasonable excuses that there are, the more there will be opportunities to claim an exemption where in truth one doesn’t exist. So it’s going to be very tough to enforce.”
Under the road traffic act, police also can only stop cars for suspected traffic violations, to check insurance or a licence or if the motorist or their passengers are wanted for an offence.
“The point is there is no ‘Covid power’ to stop vehicles. There won’t be an awful lot we can do if lots of people hit the roads on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. We won’t be closing roads to prevent it,” said the source.
Ken Marsh, chair of the Met Police Federation, said: “I would accept there is legislation put in place but as a police officer who has been doing the job for a long time, it’s not enforceable.
“Your functionality to perform your duty is nigh on impossible if they don’t tell you the truth. If they think they are going to get a fine, they won’t tell you the truth.”
It came as ministers, the Government and British Transport Police pledged to deploy more officers to transport hubs to deter people travelling to and from Tier 4 areas.
Sir Peter Hendy, the Government’s Christmas transport tsar, said: “The message is clear – to combat this virus, you must follow the guidance and stay at home.
“At stations we will be deploying extra staff, announcements will make the law clear, and additional BTP officers are in place to ensure that only essential journeys take place.
“People considering driving should also stay at home or stay local. The new restrictions mean that people should not travel into or out of Tier 4 areas, and across the country you should stay local. You should play your part in tackling the spread of this virus.”
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said: “It is incredibly important that people follow the guidance, stay at home and do not attempt to travel. Our focus must be stopping the spread of this virus, protecting lives and our NHS.
“If you are in Tier 4, the law means you must stay at home and you cannot stay overnight away from home. Across the rest of the country, you must stay local.
“Follow the guidance and please do not come to a station unless you are permitted to travel. Extra BTP officers are being deployed to ensure only those who need to take essential journeys can travel safely.”
Police chiefs are still planning a “softly” approach to minor breaches of the “household bubble” rules in Tiers 1-3 to focus flagrant abuses through raves or house parties, but expect to take a tougher approach at New Year, say sources.
Nick Adderley, Northamptonshire chief constable, said: “None of us want to see overzealous policing, in any context. Of course, if people play their part and do the right thing, they won’t even see an officer this Christmas.”
But he urged the public: “Please don’t lambast the cops on the ground for the changes, they don’t make the rules and most are in the same boat re restrictions.”
Thousands of passengers who booked rail tickets to leave Tier 4 areas before the restrictions will not be refunded.
Travellers with advance single tickets have been invited to re-book on another date, as those living under Tier 4 restrictions are not allowed to travel except for essential reasons.
Rail refund policy is set by the Rail Delivery Group, the industry’s governing body, which is effectively controlled by the Government. One user accused rail companies of “profiteering from the pandemic”.