Coronavirus lockdown: When an individual’s freedom is at stake the law should not be open to interpretation

IT’S the most extraordinary restriction on the liberty of the population: “No person may leave the place where they are living”.

That’s the top line. It’s not advice and it’s not guidance – it’s the law. And anyone breaking the law could be returned to their home by police officers using “reasonable force”, receive a prohibition notice and end up paying a maximum of £960 in fines. That is, unless they have a “reasonable excuse”.

When the freedom of the individual is at stake it’s absolutely essential that those enforcing the law have a proper understanding of the regulations. There can be no ‘grey areas’. Nothing should be left to one person’s interpretation of the law.

So, consider the reports on some online news pages and in social media of police attempts to ban alcohol purchases. For example, I’ve read that an Edinburgh shopper was subjected to a bag search by and fined for restricting her purchases to wine, crisps and snacks. I have absolutely no idea whether that’s true or not – there may well be more to the story than meets the eye.

Let’s stick to what we know. As a matter of record, Northamptonshire’s Chief Constable faced a torrent of criticism for announcing that his force might “marshal” supermarkets and examine the contents of trolleys. While the backlash led to more or less immediate repentance, a neighbouring police force subsequently reported on social media that officers had visited a branch of Tesco: “Good to see everyone was abiding by social distancing measures and the non-essential aisles were empty”.

The notion that the police are able to take arbitrary decisions as to what is, and is not, an “essential” commodity doesn’t have a good look. And thinking specifically of alcohol, the message from the police in Plymouth is clear: “Going to the shops for beer and cigarettes is not essential”. A Times reader told the paper that he’d been obliged to remove four cans of beer at a supermarket till because it looked like he was organising a party.

So, what is the law? On this side of the border it’s set out in the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Regulations 2020. In England, the parallel regulations are broadly similar. In both jurisdictions, the framework is identical.

Certain types of premises cannot be open for any reason: for example, cinemas, theatres and hair salons. Others are subject to restrictions. And there’s also an extensive list of premises permitted to stay open subject to taking “social distancing” measures. That list makes express reference to “off licences and licensed shops selling alcohol (including breweries)”. It’s also abundantly clear that there’s nothing to prevent pubs, cafés and restaurants from selling food or drink for consumption off the premises (provided that alcohol sales are authorised by the premises licence).

In the midst of a nightmare posing a palpable existential threat to the licensed trade, it’s dispiriting to discover that there are lobbyists calling for the coupe de grace. Last month a public health professor called for consideration of a “ban or limit” on alcohol sales. And the World Health Organisation said on its website that there are risks “in leaving people under lockdown in their homes with a substance that is harmful both in terms of their health and the effects of their behaviour on others”.

It’s a shame that we can’t put these sort of bizarre opinions into their own lockdown.

Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.