Defying coronavirus guidance will be treated as criminal offence

Police will have the power to arrest people flouting the Government’s coronavirus guidance and force them into isolation, Scotland’s Justice Secretary has announced.

Defying the measures introduced in response to the Covid-19 outbreak will be a criminal offence, with officers able to detain culprits to protect public health.

Humza Yousaf also revealed inmates could be released if the prison system is overwhelmed by coronavirus.

He told MSPs the “unprecedented” arrest powers can be invoked against individuals, events and public gatherings when there is a “serious and imminent threat to public health”.

Those found breaching public health regulations will face a fine or “other enforcement action”, Mr Yousaf said.

Explaining the new powers set out in the UK Government’s emergency Coronavirus Bill, expected to come into force by the end of the month, Mr Yousaf said: “This includes powers allowing the police in Scotland to support and enforce public health measures, including powers to detain people and put them in appropriate isolation facilities if necessary to protect public health.

“The Bill also gives Scottish ministers the power to restrict or prohibit events or gatherings where incidence or transmission of coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health.

“These measures are unprecedented but we must take this action now to save lives.

“We are not doing so lightly and have taken this decision based on medical and scientific advice.”

Further measures to reduce the number of people attending court will achieve a “significant reduction in the number of cases programmed, in particular those cases that are not essential or exceptional”, Mr Yousaf said.

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Lord Advocate James Wolffe said the investigation of deaths is being reviewed (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Lord Advocate James Wolffe said the justice system will try to resolve or progress cases “with the minimum need for appearance at court”.

Where it is deemed necessary for cases to go ahead, Mr Wolffe said the number of witnesses will be kept to a minimum.

The “great majority” of cases will be postponed, he said, while people accused of crimes who are already in custody will generally appear via video link.

Mr Wolffe said: “Where a trial cannot take place – and I have to be frank, that will be the great majority of cases which cannot otherwise be resolved – we will have no option but to defer that trial until the public health guidance allows business to resume, even if that means the accused has to remain in custody in the meantime if public safety demands it.”

The investigation of deaths is also being reviewed “with a view to relieving pressures on the medical profession”,  Mr Wolffe said.

In these unprecedented times every measure will be explored to keep citizens safe – that includes prisoners & staff. I'm actively exploring prisoner release measures as virus continues to spread in our prisons. Robust risk assessment & public safety will be primary considerations https://t.co/DoZT0ri7jc

— Humza Yousaf (@HumzaYousaf) March 24, 2020

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has implemented emergency pandemic measures, with inmates and guards showing Covid-19 symptoms being put into self-isolation.

In response to a question from Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr about how prisons would cope with a “critical number of staff being absent”, Mr Yousaf said: “If, for example, our staff absences at SPS continue because of the public health advice, we will have to look at every single measure.

“Let me be clear, just as the UK Government has looked at releasing prisoners or increasing the numbers on HDC (home detention curfew), so too in Scotland we cannot rule out releasing prisoners – if that is in the best interests of keeping our establishments safe and those who work in those establishments.

“So that is something we’ll be actively exploring.”

Visiting prisoners has also been suspended, although the Scottish Prison Service is working to set up a helpline for families to contact as part of efforts to allow them to maintain contact.

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