Although the full impact of the recent coronavirus outbreak is still unclear, it has been argued that it will significantly affect the police. This article explores some of the pressures police forces face and details changes which have been announced to help manage the outbreak. 

Fewer police, more work? 

A major reported concern is what will happen to police staffing levels as the pandemic develops. Forces have already been reporting higher than normal sickness levels. For example, Ian Hopkins, chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, said on 24 March that 1,066 police officers and staff, who form around 10 percent of his workforce, are ill with coronavirus or self-isolating.  

Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, the UK’s largest police force, said on 25 March that 19 percent of police, civilian and community support officers were not available for duty because they were ill, showing symptoms or self-isolating. It has also been estimated that this number will likely rise to 30 percent.  

How might policing adapt? 

In preparation for such a situation, the Government published a Coronavirus Action Plan at the beginning of March. The plan stated that in a “stretching scenario” it is possible that up to one-fifth of employees could be absent from work. This would mean a significant loss of police officers and staff. The plan set out that police forces would respond by enacting business continuity plans to ensure the maintenance of critical functions. It stated that should there be a significant loss of officers and staff, forces would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order.  

The Guardian reported that police forces could limit their responses only to serious emergency calls, such as:  

  • life-threatening crimes in action;  
  • domestic violence;  
  • sexual violence; and  
  • homicides.  

The Guardian also reported that times for responding to emergency calls could be increased compared to normal targets, with the staff pulled from certain functions—such as non-time critical homicide investigations and neighbourhood policing—to focus on frontline work. However, the paper also referred to concerns that demand for officers to step in to cover for gaps in mental health support services and delays in ambulances could increase, creating additional pressures on forces. An increase in incidents of domestic abuse is also expected, with Avon and Somerset police already reporting a 20.9 percent increase in the last two weeks.  

Contingency plans 

Police Professional has reported that forces are now making contingency plans for as many as 40 percent of officers and staff to be absent. It also claimed that the armed forces could be called in to help police enforce new measures introduced to stop the spread of the disease. Speaking on this issue, Ken Marsh stated: “the Army is already in place on the outskirts of London and across the country. And I don’t doubt for one minute that they will be called if needed”. 

Commenting on the situation, Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, stated that the outbreak posed a “huge challenge for the entire country and for London”. However, she argued that the Met is a in a good position to respond to the challenge: “we have robust plans in place for this extraordinary situation and the Met is a very strong and experienced police service”. Ms Dick has also called on retired officers to return to the force, with those nearing retirement asked to consider staying on. 

Protecting police officers: testing and equipment 

Also responding, the chair of the Police Federation, John Apter, has called for officers to be tested for Covid-19. He argued that the disease “massively impacts our ability to police” and that testing would help identify officers who do not have the virus so that they can go back to work more quickly.  

Mr Apter also stated that his top priority was the provision of protective equipment for officers which he said was currently “patchwork around the country”. Guidance states that police should have access to certain protective equipment when coming in close contact with a symptomatic person who may have Covid-19. Commenting on the issue, the Home Office has said that the National Police Chiefs’ Council believed there was currently a good supply. It added the Government would continue to work with them to “ensure that emergency service workers can get the equipment they need”. 

New powers, but how will they be enforced? 

Police officers have been handed new powers in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. In his televised address on 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that police would enforce new rules compelling people to stay at home apart from in certain unavoidable circumstances.  

The new powers, set out in secondary legislation, allow police to fine those breaching the restrictions. Detailing these new powers, the Home Office states that if individuals do not comply after they receive instruction from the police, they can be fined £60 (which is halved if paid within 14 days), with the fine doubling for each further offence. If individuals continue to fail to comply, police may arrest where it is deemed proportionate and necessary.  

Highlighting the difficulties police face in enforcing these new rules, Mark White, Sky News home affairs correspondent, said there is uncertainty when it comes to determining who might be in breach. For example, large gatherings in parks are easy to spot, but “far more difficult to establish is whether people are complying with orders to remain at home”.  

Differing approaches 

Former and current officers have questioned the police’s ability to implement such rules. Sir Peter Fahy, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, has argued that enforcement using the police alone is impossible and that community pressure is key. Mr Apter echoed this argument, highlighting the UK’s approach of policing by consent and stating that officers “are not going to be militaristic in their approach”. He also stated that there has been confusion on the role of officers, blaming a “lack of clarity” in some of the Government’s messages.  

Currently, forces are taking varying approaches in enforcing the new rules. For example, Ms Dick has stated that the Met “will only use enforcement if we absolutely have to”. Instead, she has encouraged her officers to engage with people and explain the new guidance, arguing that the majority want to comply to keep their society safe.  

Other forces—including Devon and Cornwall and Police Scotland—have been stopping cars to find out if the drivers are making essential journeys. In Derbyshire, the police were criticised after using a drone to film walkers in the Peak District. In addition, in London, 500 British transport police have been checking whether commuters’ journeys are essential. Addressing this, Sir Peter said that clarification was needed as “we don’t really want 43 separate police forces […] interpreting this in different ways and individual officers being faced with real dilemmas about whether to allow this or not to allow it”. 

The “tough” approach taken by some forces has been criticised. Geoffrey Robinson QC, a human rights lawyer, has argued that the “draconian powers are both unnecessary and dangerous”. He stated that they enable police to “put citizens under house arrest”, interrogate people going about their business and fine them “all without any supervision by the courts”. Also commenting, Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, has said that “some of the measures outlined in this legislation are entirely sensible”. However, she warned that others were “overbearing and, if left unchecked, could create more problems than they solve”.  

In contrast, Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, has backed the tactics, stating that people do not need to “be going off in a car or on a bus” and that “we’d prefer than they weren’t”. Agreeing, Inspector Mark Gee of North Yorkshire police, has argued that “getting in your car and going to exercise elsewhere is unacceptable and putting people’s lives at risk”. He stated that road checkpoints will continue in his area.  

Commenting on the situation, Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, has said that his organisation is “working with the Government and other agencies to consider how these new rules can be most effectively enforced”.  

Image by fungaifoto from Pixabay.