Big Brother Watch review reveals “staggering incompetence” in use of emergency powers and demands lockdown exit strategy

Big Brother Watch Team / April 28, 2020

The civil liberties group’s review of coronavirus emergency powers one month after they came into force finds:

  • a new case of a teen wrongly convicted under Coronavirus Act and under powers for wrong country
  • a “postcode lottery of pandemic law” as forces deliver “inconsistent, heavy-handed and sometimes incompetent” policing
  • suspension of freedom of information relating to coronavirus policing
  • new curbs on free speech online
  • growing use of drones, ANPR, location tracking and warns of “a surveillance state in the UK of a scale never seen before”

An Oxford teenager who delivered money to his vulnerable mother was “wrongly convicted” under the emergency Coronavirus Act and under its Welsh provisions, according to civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. The group said it shows “staggering incompetence”.

The case emerged in a Big Brother Watch review of the use of emergency powers a month after they came into force. The organisation protested that the Government’s exit strategy from extreme restrictions is a “state secret” and urged for it to be made public.

The damning review, published today, identifies “an outbreak of inconsistent, heavy-handed and sometimes incompetent policing” including wrongful convictions, people being forced from their own gardens and driveways, and major discrepancies between forces in the number of penalty notices issued.

Police “cannot maintain trust by swinging from public apology to public apology,” the campaign group warned.

‘Zero tolerance’

Thames Valley Police, which arrested the Oxford teenager before he was prosecuted under the Welsh emergency powers, ranked second among English police forces for issuing the most lockdown fines in the first 2.5 weeks, totalling 219.

Big Brother Watch’s analysis shows that Lancashire Police issued vastly more lockdown fines than any other force in England at 380 which, proportional to population size, is 3.5 times as many as Thames Valley Police and 116 times more than Humberside Police, which issued the fewest fines at just 2.

Lancashire Police threatened on social media that its officers would take “a zero tolerance approach with those who ignore government guidance” days before the lockdown powers came into force.

“Postcode lottery of pandemic law”

The civil liberties group raised concerns of “senior police figures systematically rejecting legal advice” after several police forces appeared to oppose new guidance clarifying that people are allowed to drive a reasonable distance to exercise.

Dorset Police responded to the guidance with a statement claiming that allowing people to drive to exercise is “not within the spirit of what we are trying to achieve (…) regardless of whether it is ‘lawful’ or not.” Big Brother Watch described the inconsistent policing it identified as creating a “postcode lottery of pandemic law”.

Surveillance state

The use of ANPR, drone surveillance, mobile data tracking and citizen reporting could be normalised, the report warns, and result in “a surveillance state in the UK on a scale never seen before.”

Concerns have been exacerbated by the “suspension” of freedom of information requests on coronavirus policing. Big Brother Watch uncovered a police strategy document which instructs forces to centralise and delay all freedom of information requests for transparency on policing of emergency powers until summer 2021.



  1. Big Brother Watch will publish an Emergency Powers and Civil Liberties report every month that the powers remain in force and send a copy to every parliamentarian, every month.
  2. The report is available online here.
  1. Big Brother Watch statement in full:


“In our comprehensive review of the first month of emergency powers, we’ve identified an outbreak of inconsistent, heavy-handed and sometimes incompetent policing. We empathise with the challenges police face and recommend that Government harmonises its communications on the “rules” with emergency powers to avoid enduring confusion among the public and police as to what liberties people do and don’t have.

“We’ve found examples of senior police figures systematically rejecting legal advice in favour of the Government’s more restrictive guidelines. Worryingly, we’ve even seen multiple cases of the CPS misapplying emergency laws.

“In our report, we identified a case where a teenager in Oxford who visited his vulnerable mother was not only wrongly convicted under the Coronavirus Act but under its Welsh provisions. This multi-layered incompetence is staggering and shows that institutional failures are putting fundamental rights at risk in this crisis.

“Police cannot maintain trust by swinging from public apology to public apology, these failings need to be tackled head on. We call on police chiefs and the CPS to urgently review the implementation of emergency powers and every single conviction under the emergency powers.

“We’re particularly concerned that the Government has undervalued parliamentary scrutiny in this crisis. The lockdown restrictions have still not been approved by Parliament in England and the exit strategy remains a state secret. The refusal of transparency is totally unacceptable and leaves the public effectively at the behest of ministerial decree. The Government must publish its exit strategy as decisions of this magnitude demand not only legal authority but democratic consent.

“We’re alarmed that a public health emergency has rapidly led to the opaque growth of ANPR, drone surveillance, mobile data tracking and citizen reporting. If we are complacent, the conditions of crisis could seed a surveillance state in the UK of a scale never seen before.”

Press coverage:

The Independent — Coronavirus lockdown confusion causing ‘postcode lottery’ of police enforcement, report warns