Police ability to handle coronavirus riots ‘significantly diminished’ by staff cuts, say Government’s own advisers
The SAGE paper says any coronavirus-related disorder will “inevitably” see officers shifted from other roles to tackling disorder (PA)
The ability of the police to deal with disorder during the coronavirus pandemic has been “significantly diminished” by “the loss of very high numbers of staff”, the Government’s own advisers have warned.
A paper published by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Friday says that there is now a “high risk of civil disorder across multiple sites”, with racial tensions, the end of the Government’s furlough scheme and the ongoing threat of terrorism all listed as potential flashpoints.
But they warn that the ability of police to respond has been reduced since riots swept through London and other UK cities in 2011 — with the current set-up running the risk of a “security crisis” that may pull in the army.
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds seized on the warning to accuse the Government of leaving the public “at risk”, but the Home Office said it disagreed with the conclusions.
The July 2 paper from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) policing and security sub-group is among a batch of documents uploaded to the Government’s website on Friday.
It says that the police are now “in a far weaker position in terms of capacity” to deal with disorder than they were in 2011.
And it says that officers serving during the pandemic face not only the threat of “spontaneous public gatherings” that could turn violent but the “scapegoating” of minority ethnic communities in areas subject to local lockdowns.
The paper even suggests the military may have to step in to reimpose coronavirus lockdown measures if “serious disorder” develops.
It warns: “Emerging conditions and an array of historical events have resulted in a high risk of civil disorder across multiple sites, with serious implications for public health.
“This potential disorder could be comparable or bigger in scale to the rioting of August 2011 but police capacities and capability has diminished since 2011 with the loss of very high numbers of staff.
“The latter includes not just ‘frontline’ response officers but neighbourhood and intelligence staff."
The paper adds: “The structural... losses police have suffered are relevant – closing down of custody suites and specialist prisoner-processing units, and the restriction of access to resources such as police helicopters.
“As a result, situational awareness (i.e. the ability to detect rising tensions), as well as operational response capacity in the police is significantly diminished.”
While the advisory group says the Government’s national public order mobilisation plan “remains resourced at 2011 levels”, it warns a large-scale call-out will “inevitably” see officers shifted from other roles to tackling disorder.
“Given the overall reduction in staff, this will significantly impact on police capability to deliver ‘business as usual’,” they warn.
“If such a situation were to develop a security crisis would ensue, undermining public trust in Government and catastrophically undermining its COVID-19 recovery plans.”
The latest police workforce numbers, published this week, show that there are now 129,110 full time officers in post across England and Wales, after a 4.8% increase on the previous year marked the largest annual leap in numbers since 2003/04.
It follows a flagship government pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers.
But overall numbers remain below their 2010 high after cuts in the overall workforce ran from 2011 to 2017.
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told PoliticsHome: “This makes clear what we already know and have consistently warned the Government about: their cuts to policing have significantly undermined the service and put people at risk.”
He added: “We have already seen the police under great strain in recent months. It’s totally unacceptable that ministers — by their own admission — have left vital services in this condition.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office disagrees with the paper’s assessment. The police have undertaken significant work to enhance their capabilities to deal with disorder, based on the recommendations of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary report on the widespread disorder of August 2011.
“We regularly engage with national policing leads and are assured that the police can sufficiently monitor and respond to public disorder.
“It is essential that police have the resources they need which is why we are recruiting 20,000 extra officers and providing the biggest funding increase in a decade.”