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Coronavirus: Derbyshire Police deploy drones to enforce social distancing rules

Police forces across the UK are using technology to exercise new emergency powers granted by the government this week as part of its coronavirus response

Derbyshire Police have been criticised for using an aerial drone to shame people for driving from their homes to exercise during the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown.

The footage captured by the drone shows people walking around Curbar Edge in the Peak District and was shared via Twitter by the police force, which said it had identified number plates belonging to residents from Sheffield, a 30-minute drive away.

“We understand that people will have differing views about this post, however we will not be apologetic for using any legal and appropriate methods to keep people safe,” the force tweeted.

“Whilst the government has advised [people] to take one form of exercise a day, it is not appropriate to be getting in your car and travelling to take this exercise, particularly to a location such as the Peak District, which in normal times can become busy.”

But in response to questions from The Guardian, a Cabinet Office spokesperson confirmed that lockdown guidelines passed on Wednesday 25 March did not prohibit people from driving somewhere for exercise or dog walking.

Avon and Somerset Police has also interpreted its new powers to mean stopping people from driving to a location to exercise, although it has opted to stop drivers randomly rather than using drones to surveil an area.

According to Matthew Ryder QC of Matrix Chambers, the overwhelming consensus from lawyers seems to be that police trying to restrict people to “emergency travel only” is unlawful.

“They have no power to stop someone driving to an isolated scenic spot to exercise away from others, nor is there any logical reason why there should be,” Ryder said on Twitter.

“In fairness to police... if they think they should be able to restrict people’s exercise or travel to maximum distances from their home or away from particular locations, then they’re entitled to ask for that power. But at moment, the regs don’t appear to give them that power.”

Surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter added: “The police must ensure they have a detailed understanding of the new law and powers at their disposal and that decision-making regarding the use of surveillance technologies is made at an appropriately senior level.”

A number of prominent civil liberties groups, including Big Brother Watch (BBW) and Liberty, have been vocal opponents of the sweeping powers given to police and the state as part of the coronavirus response, which have been dubbed the most draconian powers in peacetime Britain”.

The new emergency powers, which were fast-tracked through Parliament on 23 March and received Royal Assent on 25 March, include relaxing restrictions on mass surveillance under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 and giving police powers to detain “potentially infectious persons”, including children.

Police will also be able to demand documentation or information from any suspected infected individuals.

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Normally, a UK citizen does not have to give the police any personal information, even during an arrest or stop and search, but if someone fails to comply with the authorities under the new powers, it will be a criminal offence.

In response to Derbyshire Police’s action, BBW said filming innocent members of the public with drones and putting the footage online was “frankly sinister” and “counter-productive”.

“The public should follow government advice to protect themselves & others,” it tweeted. “Many people think they’re doing just that by taking walks in remote areas.

However, Derbyshire Police are not the only force deploying technology to exercise their new emergency powers.

Humberside Police, for example, have created an online portal for people to report others who they think are breaking social distancing guidelines.

“Reports will be assessed based on the information provided and we would ask people to please consider the circumstances before making their report,” said Chris Philpott, head of the force control room at Humberside Police.

“We will not be able to deploy officers to every single report of social gatherings that contradict the government’s advice and the information within the report will determine our response.”

According to Nick Adderley, chief constable of Northamptonshire Police, the force control room there is getting “dozens and dozens” of calls a day from people trying to report their neighbours for going on a second run.

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), which monitors and resists policing that is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil liberties, has started a thread on Twitter documenting the ways in which police are exercising their new emergency powers.

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