Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police.
Boris Johnson shifted the nation on its axis this week with just two words: ‘national emergency’ – placing restrictions on liberty never previously seen in peacetime. The implications for the emergency services are profound but hopefully short-lived.
A health crisis has now become a national crisis, with the role of policing becoming significantly more important following the Prime Minister’s pivot from a posture of request, nudge and cajole of the public to one of compliance, enforcement and financial sanctions. How will the police service respond and how will it enforce the new restrictions being imposed?
Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chief’s Council said yesterday: “These measures are here to protect the NHS and to save people’s lives and where it becomes necessary, we will enforce them and that is what the public want us to do”.
Meanwhile, John Apter, national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “The practicalities of policing this lockdown will be challenging, but policing will do all it can to keep the public safe, but we need the public to support us.”
It is not yet clear what power the police will have (or when) to question and if necessary fine people failing to comply with the national restrictions, but Hewitt suggested that it will be in place by the end of the week. He emphasised that British policing had no intention of moving away from its world renowned model of ‘policing by consent’.
To achieve this, the new legislation will need to include an enforcement role for both Special Constables and Police Community Support Officers as well as Police Officers. It will also be important for fines to be sufficiently high to be a strong deterrent and tiered – increasing to high levels for repeat offenders.
Johnson will be greatly relieved that the Civil Contingency Act 2004 was passed for just this type of crisis, following a review of the Government’s response to three previous crises in 2000/1 (the national floods, fuel protests and outbreak of foot and mouth disease).
Interestingly, this is the same legislation that created the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and the Civil Contingencies Committee (COBR), two crucially important organs of the Cabinet Office now being used to manage the crisis on a daily basis.
This prescient Act gives Government powers to invoke and enforce ‘emergency regulations’ to restrict travel, movement and gatherings for exactly the reasons and in the same way that they have now been invoked. It also creates an offence of failure to comply under section 22(3), but the Government may instead choose to introduce primary legislation rather than a statutory instrument, giving it freedom to create a law to more easily suit the situation the nation finds itself in.
The new measures will put extreme pressure on the police service but this remains predominantly a health crisis. The police role is to save lives by supporting their colleagues in the health service, keep the police, prevent crime and now additionally enforce the government’s restrictions.
Some police leaders are already feeling the pressure. Ken Marsh, Chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation said that there was already “large amounts of sickness” among officers in the capital with many others self-isolating, saying: “So it will be very, very challenging and very, very difficult for us with what’s put in front of us…we will be dealing with it, but I’m not sure we will have the resources to be able to see it through.”
The resilience of the police service is certainly low, but this is no time to whinge and the police infrastructure, for dealing with the crisis across the nation is very strong. The National Police Co-ordination Centre (NPoCC) is able to mobilise resources across the country to meet any surge in demand if one part of the country is more severely affected by the virus than another.
Every force also has a Local Resilience Forum; multi-agency bodies that have been consulting, collaborating, sharing information and testing and exercising responses to pandemics for many years. This multi-agency approach should be also extended to local authorities, who should use existing Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs) to enhance community engagement and information sharing between community groups and the elderly and vulnerable.
To support local action, the Home Office and Police Service should also re-invigorate Neighbourhood Watch schemes across the country as they will be a valuable resource when police officer numbers are hit by the virus.
A contingency plan is currently being drawn up to use the military to provide the health service and police with additional support. This will likely include a range of measures such as using military medical staff and hospital facilities, the backfilling of ambulance workers and armed police at fixed checkpoints. It will be based on an existing mobilisation plan for providing military support to the police service in response to a terrorist attack (Operation Temperer), which was used effectively for the first time following the Manchester Arena terrorist attack on 22 May 2017.
New pressures on the police service should, however, be offset by a reduction in demand in some traditional policing functions, for example, through an absence of mass gatherings and reductions in street crime and alcohol related disorder linked to the night time economy.
But some crimes may increase, including domestic violence. Reports from China suggest that cities under lockdown have reported almost twice as many domestic abuse claims. In a new Policy Exchange paper ‘Policing a pandemic’, I make a recommendation that the Government should consider pre-empting a potential deterioration in mental health and well-being in individuals and families (as a result of an increase in stress levels and self-isolation) leading to increases in domestic violence and devise a plan with Civil Society and Third Sector organisations (such as the relationship counselling charity Relate) to prevent these outcomes from occurring.
It remains to be seen whether criminals in gangs who have been responsible for so much gratuitous violence in recent years, will comply with these Government restrictions on movement. Intensive care units can ill afford to be dealing with victims of stabbings alongside all their other demands.
Online fraud linked to coronavirus is already on the increase with fake websites advertising goods in high demand. The UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency recently warned that ‘Globally, 2,000 online advertisements related to COVID-19 were found and more than 34,000 unlicensed and fake products, advertised as “corona spray”, “coronavirus medicines” or, “coronaviruses packages” were seized’.
As more people have to work and interact online, the National Crime Agency (NCA) should issue guidance and advice on avoiding online fraud, while the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) should expand existing advice on phishing relating to the Coronavirus crisis.
The coronavirus presents many different and varied challenges for policing but the clue to their role is in their title: “emergency service”. This national emergency will be responded to by the police service like every other challenge in recent times: with courage, resilience and professionalism. There will be concerns about the resilience of exhausted officers working long hours with additional family pressures, but I have no doubt that they will prevail, just as their colleagues in the other emergency service – the health service – will do too.