Drew isn’t a fussy neighbour. Having recently graduated from university, he has been on the receiving end of the odd noise complaint, and is usually pretty chill if his neighbours have parties. However, on the 23rd of March, when the UK's coronavirus lockdown was implemented, everything changed. Suddenly, neighbours hosting social events turned from a mild annoyance into an actual threat.
“Almost immediately after the lockdown started, we started to notice people [in the garden below] we didn't recognise,” Drew says. “There was a barbecue and about 20 people in there. I live with a partner who's vulnerable, and in order for them to access the flat they're going to be using the front door.”
He continues: “Initially I just tweeted, and just complained that people were out and about. So, I thought I'd @ Met Police and see what happened.”
Since the lockdown guidelines came into place, which advise only leaving the house for essential trips, the British public have taken it upon themselves to see that they are being followed. Check any local Facebook group and you’ll find posts calling out runners for coming too close; strangers for having people over; and neighbours for going outside one too many times. In many ways, the coronavirus crisis has exposed Britain for what it always has been: a nation of busybodies.
This kind of behaviour is also being encouraged by the police, who now have new powers to restrict people's movement and disband gatherings. Twenty-six out of 43 police forces in England and Wales have also introduced online reporting tools that allow members of the public to report behaviour that violates lockdown guidelines, effectively asking us to snitch on our neighbours. In the majority of cases, those who report lockdown violations do so with the best of intentions, aiming to stop the spread of a dangerous virus. At the same time, however, self-righteous local vigilantes are frothing at the mouth at the thought of catching Flat 3 out for a second walk of the day.
Due to his flat's communal entranceway and the risk posed to his vulnerable partner, Drew felt that he had no choice but to report his neighbours to the police. “It was quite frustrating,” he tells me. “I felt like they were really fortunate to have the only garden out of seven flats and they're abusing that right by having all these people over. Elsewhere in the flats, there is an elderly couple upstairs. Things like that are just so inconsiderate.”
Despite Drew’s complaints to the police, who recorded the incident and provided him with a crime reference number, the neighbours had more parties. Does he consider himself the kind of person to “snitch” on people who break the rules?
“I totally get why people are like, ‘Why are you snitching on people?’” says Drew. “In certain scenarios, I can see why reporting on someone can seem a bit morally reprehensible but I feel like it's much, much worse to hold a house party where you're risking spreading coronavirus to everyone who attends [and] everyone who shares the entrance way.”
Drew isn't the only one who feels that the coronavirus crisis warrants reporting dubious activities to the police. While out on a run, Ellie* decided to photograph the “six to eight grown men” she saw playing cricket in a busy park.
“I couldn't believe it,” she tells me. “They were the only ones blatantly flouting the rules. I slowed down as I ran past, got my phone out and made it clear I was taking photos from a distance, which got a reaction from them."
“I wanted them to feel embarrassment and realise others were aware,” continues Ellie. “It annoyed me so much because if the park shuts down, it hurts everyone vulnerable that relies on the green space.”
Despite her anger, Ellie didn’t do anything with the photos. “I wasn't going to do anything with them,” she says. “I hate the vigilante Facebook groups.” However, the action achieved its intention – which was to publicly shame the cricketers for breaking the rules of the lockdown. “A fellow runner told me that [the men] were annoyed at me for taking pictures,” she says. “I did wonder if I'd put myself in danger if they got angry, but I was pleased I'd made them react, either way.”
VICE UK reached out to Greater Manchester Police, who launched an online tool for reporting lockdown breaches earlier this month, to find out how many people had reported incidents so far. A spokesperson for the police force told us that while it could not share the exact figures, it has seen a rise in the number of reports.
Publicly calling out others or reporting them to the police might seem like the right thing to do for some, but how does it feel to be the victim of unhelpful snitching? Mark*, who works at a supermarket near Cambridge, says that a customer reported two members of staff to the manager after they were spotted standing less than two metres apart. This led to all staff being told off.
“[The manager] basically went round the entire store and gave a mild bollocking to all staff to stay two metres apart,” Mark says. “Which is a bit of a problem because we measured our aisles and they're 2.5 metres wide, and given that most people are more than 25cm wide, it's physically impossible to stay two metres apart in two places.”
For Mark, being reported to his manager was infuriating, especially as he and his colleagues are key workers putting themselves at risk to keep supermarket shelves stocked. “I work on all the chilled section, and there's such a high demand there, it requires staff to be constantly at it," he says. "So, of course, you're going to find yourself within a small distance.”
Encouraging people to report on members of their community can have other consequences, too. Human rights barrister Adam Wagner has warned that tools like those launched by Greater Manchester Police “encourage social mistrust and division, rather than empathy / good faith” amongst the public. The greater powers bestowed on the police to enforce lockdown measures are also at risk of being misused. Less than a month into the lockdown, and law enforcers have been accused harassing people trying to exercise, fining people for non-illegal activities and entering homes – all under the guise of containing the spread of coronavirus.
Mark hopes that the pandemic snitching doesn't get any further out of hand. “We all felt a bit miffed, we were being told off for trying to do our jobs,” he says. “It felt the same as being back at school. It was none of her business, really.”
*Some names have been changed for anonymity.