Draconian new powers authorising police to arrest anyone suspected of being infected with coronavirus were imposed on Monday after a patient tried to break out of a quarantine unit.
Officers – potentially wearing protective ‘hazmat’ suits – will have power to enter ‘any place’ and use ‘reasonable force’ to seize people who have returned from an infected area and have not agreed to be isolated.
They could also forcibly round up any potential carriers of the virus who leave one of England’s two ‘isolation facilities’ without permission.
Anyone who fails to comply could face arrest and a fine of up to £1,000 (about R19 000).
Emergency legislation was signed before dawn by Health Secretary Matt Hancock after the reported break-out bid from Arrowe Park hospital in the Wirral – dubbed Camp Corona. A staff accommodation block is being used to house 93 people evacuated from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the international outbreak.
They were flown back to Britain on the condition that they agreed to spend a fortnight quarantined at the block, which is patrolled by private security guards.
However, over the weekend it is understood that someone attempted to abscond.
A security guard said: ‘One patient got drunk and threatened to leave so the police told him that if he left he’d have to pay for his flight and all the food and everything else he’d had, so he soon shut up.’
Kharn Lambert, a teacher from Lancaster who was evacuated to Arrowe Park along with his 81-year-old grandmother, accused ministers of going ‘over the top’ by empowering police.
"I don’t think there’s any need to be forcibly detaining anyone," he said.
"I don’t believe anyone is going to be that stupid so the use of force won’t be necessary".
The new rules give doctors powers to require that anyone who arrives in England from an infected area remains in quarantine for up to 14 days.
The regulations have been issued under the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, which grants the Health Secretary powers to stop illnesses spreading.
"We’re strengthening our existing powers to be able to make sure people stay in quarantine if they’re wanting to leave, which we don’t have under the previous rules," a source said.
"If we’ve got reasonable suspicion that people might potentially be infected then we can detain them for their safety and the safety of others and, if necessary, return them to the centre".
Sources stressed that forcible detention would be used only in ‘extreme cases’, if at all.
In a sign of the urgency of the unfolding crisis, the new regulations were signed by Mr Hancock at 6.50am.
He said: "I will do everything in my power to keep people in this country safe. We are taking every possible step to control the outbreak of coronavirus".
A group of 105 evacuees were taken to a three-star hotel in Milton Keynes on Sunday after it became Britain’s second ‘isolation facility’ – dubbed Camp Corona II.
Medical staff have been monitoring the two groups closely, but it is understood that no-one has displayed any symptoms.
An insider at Arrowe Park said some residents had appointed themselves as ‘shop stewards’. He said they had been ‘quite vocal in asking doctors why they need to remain inside when they have been there over a week and shown no signs of the virus’.
The insider added that doctors had ‘sought to reassure patients that anyone else who could be brought into the unit would be isolated so there would be no risk to those who are already inside’.
"But some patients have made the point that the doctors or other hospital staff could still spread the virus".