UK urges citizens to stay at home over Easter, police ready to get tough

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government urged people to stay at home over the Easter holidays, concerned that the pull of wanting to see family and friends could undermine efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The country is into its third week of stringent restrictions, with people ordered to stay at home unless going out to buy food or to exercise once a day. Police have been given powers to fine those who break the rules.

“We understand that people will want to spend time with their friends and families this Easter, and we recognise that we are asking the public to make sacrifices in the fight against this disease,” a government spokeswoman said.

Although the government has said the lockdown is broadly being well observed, people’s resolve has already been tested by unseasonably warm weather, with more forecast over the next few days.

London’s parks were busy on Saturday but nearly everyone seemed to be observing the social distancing rules, while Brighton beach on the English south coast, normally heaving with visitors on a sunny day, was almost empty.

Police had warned they will more readily use new emergency powers to fine who flouted the restrictions during the four-day Easter holiday. Scotland’s police said it had issued just over 500 fines across the country since the law came into effect.

A YouGov opinion poll found 74% of the public backed the way officers have enforced the lockdown so far, but 32% thought they had sometimes gone too far.

One police force in central England on Thursday had to retract a warning that it could start checking people’s shopping baskets to ensure they were only buying essential items, a step interior minister Priti Patel said would be inappropriate.

On Saturday, two other forces apologised after saying admitting officers had been over zealous.

In one case, a man was told he could not be in his front garden; in another, police in Cambridge attracted criticism by tweeting that it was good to see “the non essential aisles” of a supermarket were empty.

The UK has reported some 65,000 cases of coronavirus and the death toll in hospitals stood at 7,978 as of 1600 GMT on April 8.

In some instances people have taken out their frustrations over the restrictions on police: prosecutors have said there have been numerous instances of officers being coughed or spat at by offenders who said they had the coronavirus.

Greater Manchester Police said one of their female officers was bitten by a man during a confrontation that broke out on Thursday evening when she and a colleague tried to explain the lockdown restrictions to him.

(Reporting by William James and Michael Holden; Editing by Frances Kerry)