Snowball fights will get you a £200 Covid fine, police force warns

People having snowball fights outside face £200 fines for breaching Covid lockdown rules, police have said, amid criticism of heavy-handedness by officers.

West Mercia Police said snowball fights were not a justifiable reason for people to leave their homes during lockdown.

They wrote on Twitter: "There have been two reports of snowballs being thrown last night between 11 and 11.30pm. This is obviously not a justifiable reason to be out of your house, this behaviour is likely to result in a £200 Fixed Penalty Notice for breaking the lockdown rules."

The action came after police chiefs warned this week that they will take a tougher approach to the latest lockdown, including challenging and fining people outside their homes without a reasonable excuse.

On Friday, figures showed police have more than doubled the rate at which they are issuing Covid fines, with a record 7,396 in the first 20 days of December – the equivalent of more than 350 a day. 

It came after two women were hit with £200 Covid fines after their countryside walk with cups of coffee was branded a picnic.

The women said they were surrounded by police, read their rights and fined after driving five miles to take a walk in the Derbyshire countryside. They were told the hot drinks they had brought along were not allowed because they were "classed as a picnic".

Guidance for the latest lockdown says people can travel for exercise as long as it is in their "local area".  

Derbyshire Police initially defended the fine, saying driving for exercise was "not in the spirit" of lockdown.

But on Friday night the force appeared to row back on its decision, saying that fixed penalty notices issued during the new restrictions would be reviewed.

The force, which received clarification on the coronavirus regulations around travel and exercise from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: "All fixed penalty notices during this relevant period that have been issued will be reviewed for compliance. All recipients will be contacted."

Friends Jessica Allen and Eliza Moore, who were fined by police

One of the Derbyshire walkers, Jessica Allen, said her car had been surrounded by police almost as soon as she arrived at Foremark reservoir after driving across the county border from her home in Leicestershire.

She said there were so many police that she thought someone had been murdered, adding: "Straight away, they start questioning us. One of them started reading my rights and I was looking at my friend thinking ‘this must be a joke’.

"I said we had come in separate cars, even parked two spaces away and even brought our own drinks with us. He said: ‘You can’t do that as it’s classed as a picnic.’"

Her friend Eliza Moore said she was "stunned at the time" so did not challenge police and gave her details so they could send a fixed penalty notice.

"Just seeing a police officer anyway is quite scary for some people and we were really not expecting to be approached and to be told we were doing something wrong," she said. "We don’t want to get away with it if we have broken the rule, but it seems a bit unfair that you can be fined on something that’s so vague."

Derbyshire Police said: "Driving to a location, where exercise could easily have been taken closer to a person’s home, is clearly not in the spirit of the national effort to reduce our travel, reduce the possible spread of the disease and reduce the number of deaths.

"Each officer will use their professional judgement on a case-by-case basis. However, people should expect to be challenged and understand the clear reasons why they may be asked about their movements given the critical situation the NHS currently finds itself in."

Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, said he regarded the reservoir as a local area, adding: "It is important that common sense is used when enforcing guidelines, and a fine rather than issuing guidance appears to be rather over-zealous."

Derbyshire police were criticised for "nanny policing" after putting up a drone to film people walking in pairs in the Peak district to deter "non-essential" travel in the first lockdown.

Figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council showed the total number of Covid fines issued rose by nearly 30 per cent in first 20 days of December to 32,329 due to a surge in breaches. That was up from 24,933 at the end of November. The number of £10,000 fines for raves or house parties has risen from 136 to 198, potentially raising nearly £2 million.

Forces continue to benefit from a low officer and staff absence figure of  eight per cent across the UK although there are variations between constabularies. London is the worst hit with 14 per cent of officers off. Without London, the national figure would be 6.9 per cent.

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