Alison Hernandez is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly
I’m aware that all of us recognise the importance of doing our bit during this Covid-19 crisis. Most of us are staying at home, protecting the NHS, and ultimately saving lives. In fact, businesses have closed and livelihoods been threatened or even lost. Staying at home is a simple message that everyone can understand and has a moral duty to comply with… Or is it?
Our police force in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly has been an active participant alongside our community in helping people understand what the stay at home message means for us. As an area with visitor numbers in ordinary times that are second only to London, you can imagine our fear, of being inundated with holidaymakers and second home owners who preferred to spend time at ‘home’ elsewhere than at their primary residence.
I have worked closely with elected leaders and MPs to get a feel of their appetite for the level of police presence during the lockdown and had daily debates with the Chief Constable to check rationale and approach. A Cornwall MP and tourism partner were the first to tell tourists to ‘come back later’ before the Government announced that a holiday was not considered essential travel. That was because Cornwall has only one hospital. And so to play our part over Easter weekend our force issued 169 fixed penalty notices… putting us in the top five of forces who used this power.
We’ve had some of our communities wanting roadblocks and the eviction of second home owners through to allowing free reign of our beauty spots, even if people have to drive a distance to get there. Getting the balance right has been a real thin blue line to tread.
Our force’s officers have now spoken with tens of thousands of people, having conversations with what are ordinarily our law-abiding community. And some are struggling to cope with receiving a verbal warning, or a telling off, by a police officer for not adhering to the guidelines. We need all of us to recognise we have a part to play and to use our common sense to carry out our moral duty to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
I believe it would be irresponsible to promote a message that our beauty spots are open for exercise (other than to those that can walk there) which would create gatherings going against the spirit of the guidance. We have already seen surfers in their droves doing this, and beyond the potential spread of coronavirus, we have general safety concerns too. The RNLI and Coastguards have both said they will not be there to rescue us should we get into trouble. We do not want deaths on our beaches so we need to fight the temptation to do as we please.
I was astounded at the latest NPCC/College of Policing ‘guidance’ that came out to Chief Constables saying it was ‘reasonable’ to drive to exercise as long as the exercise lasts longer than the drive. With a South West coast path of 630 miles, internationally renowned beauty spots, and the largest force area in England of 4,000 square miles, driving for hours to exercise is normal for us so would not change a thing. So is this in the best interests of limiting the reach of coronavirus in the South West?
What we have been doing so far has been working. We have one of the lowest rates of infection and want to keep it that way. If the government is on our side we would like them to support our robust policing approach and not leave police forces to hang out to dry. I am clear I will be held to account at the ballot box when elections resume, and while recently achieving the second lowest crime rate in the country, for the first time, as a force area, it will pale into insignificance when the memories of lockdown will be at the fore. I am ready for it because I believe our force is doing their best in the circumstances.
Since the lockdown began we have had at least five deaths on our roads, so the 73 per cent reduction in traffic hasn’t stopped people tragically dying. Our hospitals and funeral homes really don’t need any added pressure right now and we do not want even more families to struggle to say goodbye to their loved ones. It is just heartbreakingly sad.
With all of this as a backdrop, you may be able to better understand the important part policing plays alongside our partners and community. Our advice has been that if you feel in your gut that your journey isn’t essential then it probably isn’t. Common sense can prevail.
So stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives. It’s clearly a moral duty and not a legal one.