Coronavirus (COVID-19): international policing responses - part 1 - during lockdown

This review (part 1) considers international policing approaches and responses to policing the lockdown, up to the 7 May 2020.

New Zealand

Main points

  • New Zealand has utilised a four level alert system to respond to COVID-19, describing the levels broadly as 'prepare, reduce, restrict, and lockdown'
  • New Zealand spent a month from 26 March to 27 April on full lockdown, which required all people stay home except for essential movement, 2 metre distancing everywhere outside of the home, and all non-essential businesses and workplaces closed. They have since moved back down to level 3, which reopens businesses that can operate without customer contact, and schools for some students, but personal movement still remains restricted
  • Under existing legislation, police are empowered to use any reasonable means including force to ensure compliance with orders made under emergency health regulations. Fines can range up to $4000, and imprisonment up to six months
  • Policing has aimed to utilise engagement and encouragement before moving to enforcement. So far, the majority of recorded breaches have resulted in a warning only
  • Police have made a concerted effort to be more visible in communities, through measures like reassurance checks, road check points, and increased community patrols
  • Police set up a new service via their non-emergency number and a web portal for the public to report incidents of people breaching the restrictions

The lockdown

New Zealand has utilised a four level alert system to respond to COVID-19.[144] On 26 March, alert level 4 'lockdown' was activated, introducing a range of measures for everyone including:

  • Staying at home, except for essential personal movement
  • Physical contact with own household only (their bubble)
  • Recreational exercise restricted to local area, solitary or with household members
  • Businesses closed expect for essential services and lifeline utilities
  • Educational facilities closed
  • Travel severely limited
  • All public venues closed and gatherings cancelled
  • Two meter physical distancing

On 27 April, New Zealand moved to alert level 3 'restrict', with the situation to be reviewed on 11 May. Under level 3 much of the above restrictions remain but the following is now permitted:

  • Household bubbles can be expanded to reconnect with close family, caregivers or to support isolated people. Bubbles should be exclusive, small and local
  • Businesses can open premises subject to compliance but cannot physically interact with customers
  • Schools (years 1 to 10) and Early Childhood Education centres can safely open, but with limited capacity and physical distancing. Children should still learn at home if possible
  • Some inter-regional travel permitted but personal travel still restricted to local areas


On 25 March 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared a State of National Emergency under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 (CDEM). The position is reviewed weekly and to date has been continuously extended. The state of emergency allows the use of special powers by Medical Officers of Health in accordance with s70 of the Health Act 1956 for the purposes of preventing the outbreak and spread of COVID-19.

Police powers

The above two pieces of legislation- CDEM Act 2002 and s70 of the Health Act 1956- provide the Police with legal basis for additional powers. The Health Act legislation provides the following:[145]

  • Police may do anything reasonably necessary (including the use of force), to compel, enforce, or ensure compliance with a requirement in Health Act orders (s70A(1)(e))
  • Police may stop and inspect any vehicle, and enquire into the purpose of travel under s 71A(2) to ensure people are not travelling in breach of the Health Act orders
  • Police have a power to enter, remain and inspect premises (s 71A(2)) if they have reasonable grounds to believe actions or gatherings are occurring in those premises that are not consistent with the Health Act orders
  • Police have the authority to establish checkpoints at the discretion of the District Commander to stop vehicles to establish compliance with the Health Act Order

Penalties for failing to comply can include up to six months imprisonment and/or a $4,000 fine (approx. £1,950).[146]

The powers in the CDEM Act complement the above. They include:[147]

  • Police may enter any premises or place if they believe the action is necessary to save life, prevent injury, remove endangered persons or to carry out an urgent measure for relief of suffering/distress (s87).
  • Police may totally or partially prohibit or restrict public access, with or without vehicles, to any road or public place to prevent or limit the spread of the emergency (s88).
  • Police may direct any person to stop any activity that may cause or substantially contribute to an emergency (s91)
  • Police may request any person, either verbally or in writing, to take any action to prevent or limit the extent of the emergency (s91)

The enforcement of these additional powers relies heavily on the discretion of Police officers. This was subject of some concern amongst members of the Epidemic Response Committee, heightened by initial inconsistent messaging and application of the powers.[148] At a suggestion of the Committee, New Zealand Police published its operating guidance for alert level 4, and they have now also published their level 3 guidance.

Policing approach

In line with the approaches adopted in the UK and Ireland, New Zealand Police have stressed the necessity to maintain public support and for their actions to be seen as legitimate, proportionate and aligned with the intent of the restrictions. The upholding of these principles is seen as crucial as the country adjusts to level 3.[149] Police issued a number of public appeals during the level 4 restrictions and during the transition to level 3, urging the public to familiarise themselves with the restrictions.

The police have adopted a gradual approach to policing COVID-19:

  • Engage with the parties and communicate with them to identify whether their current behaviour or activities are contrary to the government's response to COVID-19
  • Educate them on the current requirements (if necessary) to correct their behaviour or activities
  • Encourage compliance with measures if required
  • Enforcement - warnings or prosecutorial measures. Warnings are the preferred option with arrest only to be used as a last resort

For the transition to alert level 3, the approach was amended in police guidance to separate out 'warn' and 'enforcement' into individual steps, distinguishing the New Zealand model from Ireland and the UK's:

  • Warn - only where evidence of education exists and when offences are repeated or are sufficiently serious
  • Enforcement - only resort to prosecutorial measures if absolutely necessary[150]

Public opinion data would appear to suggest that the adopted policing approach has translated into higher levels of public satisfaction with the police. In addition, levels of public trust and confidence are as high as they were following the March 2019 Christchurch terrorist shootings.[151] As with other jurisdictions, the police anticipated that the restrictions would impact on crime levels. In particular domestic abuse was forecast to increase and has been prioritised by the police, with pre-COVID resourcing levels maintained.

Policing Measures

As of 27 April 2020, New Zealand Police had recorded 5,857 breaches of the level 4 restrictions. The vast majority (5,303) were under the Health Act whilst 554 breaches were under the CDEM Act.[152] As shown in Table 1, for both Acts, the vast majority of breaches resulted in warnings.

Table 1: Level 4 Breaches 26 March-27 April 2020
Prosecution Warnings Youth Referrals Total
Health Act 589 4,548 166 5,303
CDEM Act 40 493 17 554

A district level breakdown, shows considerable variation in the number of breaches and the use of available enforcement actions in respect to both legislative Acts.[153]

The police have sought to be more visible in communities than usual, interacting with people to ensure they are complying with the restrictions. During level 4, police undertook tens of thousands of reassurance checks and community patrols.[154] The police have been highly visible on the roads, with checkpoints set up to prohibit non-essential travel. The use of checkpoints was stepped up over the Easter and Anzac weekends, especially around holiday hotspots.[155] Visible policing will continue during level 3 restrictions but it was suspected that the focus might shift to targeting group gatherings.[156]


Police had received criticism of their ability to ensure people returning from abroad complied with self-isolation.[157] Initially, police had intended to visit people who had returned from overseas into 'non-managed self-isolation' within three days to ensure compliance. But unable to meet this target (at 01 April 4,068 people were in non-managed self-isolation), they developed an opt-in text-messaging service to ease the burden on resources. People were sent a link which would allow the police to track their location if activated. Those who did not respond were prioritised by the police for visits and phone calls. The police also had a presence at hotels where returning citizens under 'managed self-isolation' are located.[158]

A police web portal was set up to enable the public to report incidents of people breaking the restrictions. Over 4,000 reports were submitted online within the first two days, the majority of which did not require a Police response.[159] In addition, the police set up a new phone service via their non-emergency number for people to report breaches. In total, the police received 53,487 reports of breaches under level 4.[160]

Easing the lockdown

As described above, New Zealand has adopted a four level alert system to restrictions. The levels are categorised as:

1. Prepare
2. Reduce
3. Restrict
4. Lockdown

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New Zealand’s alert levels summary text available:

As of 27 April New Zealand is at alert level 3 and this will be reviewed on 11 May.[161] At the time of writing, the Government have not outlined longer-term plans for easing restrictions further.



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