The regulations on social distancing were introduced quickly for very good reason. In an ideal world, they would have received detailed scrutiny at the Assembly before becoming law.
However, we are not living in an ideal world at present. The overriding priority at this time is protection of life. Regulations to enforce and encourage social distancing have a vital role to play in that regard.
These regulations were introduced by the Department of Health, with support from all Executive Ministers. Responsibility for enforcing them rests with the Police. Regulations are never going to cover all potential aspects of human interaction and behaviour in a modern society. There will inevitably be some shades of grey. That’s the reality of life. The Police have rightly made clear that officers will apply a “reasonableness” test on occasions when deciding if some behaviours may breach the regulations.
The overriding principle in applying any reasonableness test is not what may be reasonable for people to want to do, but what is reasonable in achieving the aim of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus, balanced with other risks and considerations. Officers applying discretion are a regular feature of modern day policing. Discretion is by its nature case specific. Ultimately, any decisions can be challenged through the courts to determine if the “reasonableness” test has been correctly applied in all the circumstances. It should also be noted that people will routinely be given the option of complying with any requirement to return home without the need for any penalty to be imposed. Thankfully, the vast majority of people across our community are supportive and co-operative with these emergency measures.
Whilst understanding people’s desire for clarity in what constitutes an offence under the regulations, it is not always possible to give individual answers for the countless hypothetical scenarios which may arise. Notwithstanding this, the public health guidance is clear: stay home and only leave home when it is essential.
For our part, we are deeply concerned that the current discourse may serve to undermine public confidence in the overall regulations, and encourage some people to ignore the strong guidance from the NI Executive with potentially devastating consequences.