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How do you police a pandemic

Police enforcing the national lockdown, Millennium Bridge, London. | PA Images

Richard Walton and Sophia Falkner | Policy Exchange

4 min read

Despite a shift in resources and duties, the police will rise to the multiple challenges posed by this unprecedented pandemic.

December’s general election marked a new approach to law and order. After years of austerity and cuts to police numbers, the Home Office began recruiting 20,000 police officers to turn the tide on rising crime. But among the challenges anticipated by the police in 2020, policing a pandemic was not one of them.

While the most immediate impact of Covid-19 on the police will be a shift in resources away from their traditional duties in support of the Government’s national Coronavirus Strategy, and the NHS generally, the police will also have to contend with an increase in some crimes, a reduction in others and a new role of enforcing the national restrictions imposed on us all.

As more people conduct their lives online, we can expect online fraud and internet crimes to increase. To date 34,000 unlicensed and fake products relating to coronavirus have been identified online by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and Interpol has also issued warnings of coronavirus-related financial fraud and phishing. As highlighted in Policy Exchange’s new report, Policing a Pandemic, the National Crime Agency will have a role to play here in issuing guidance to make the public aware of such fraud and the National Cyber Security Centre should expand their existing advice on phishing.

The police have to contend with a new role of enforcing the national restrictions imposed on us all

With the closure of pubs, clubs and bars, alcohol-related disorderly behaviour and drug consumption will fall, but gang-related crimes may spike as gangs compete with rivals for a slice of declining revenue. Evidence from China also suggests that we can also expect domestic violence to increase, as pressure and stress on families increases inside homes. Furthermore reports of burglars posing as ‘coronavirus testers’ from the Department of Health point to the changing nature of traditional crimes such as theft and burglary that the police and public will have to contend with.

The stringent wide-ranging measures being introduced by the Government pose an additional challenge to the police who must keep the peace, and prevent breakout of disorder, as individuals are faced with some shortages in supermarkets and unemployment as well as unprecedented temporary infringements on their civil liberties. Although the ability of the police to respond to civil unrest has been improved since the 2011 London Riots, some neighbourhoods will become more vulnerable due to inevitable police staff shortages as the virus spreads. It will be crucial that over this period the police are not diverted from the already diminished Safer Neighbourhood Teams, who will play an important role in engaging with local communities. These teams will be key to enforcing new restrictions imposed by the Government in a manner that does not aggravate the public and encourages cohesion. They should be used to reinvigorate and manage Neighbourhood Watch Schemes across the country, which will play a vital role in local law enforcement as police officers themselves are hit by the virus.

While the UK model of ‘Policing by Consent’ supports social cohesion over this period, local authorities should use existing Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs) to enhance community engagement and information sharing. The positive steps taken by individuals and community groups to help the elderly and vulnerable to connect has been immense, but increased coordination will be vital to ensuring that local support is fully utilised. The Government, and the NHS’s, ability to engage third sector and civil society organisations will be key to maintaining national unity. It should use a range of measures, including a national advertising campaign, to sustain adherence to strict social distancing measures while boosting morale and building cohesion.

The pandemic will involve unprecedented challenges for the police but given the ‘extraordinary outbreaks of altruism’ – as described by the chief medical officer Chris Witty – that characterise the British nation in crisis, we are confident they are up to the challenge.


Richard Walton is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Commander at New Scotland Yard. Sophia Falkner is a research fellow at Policy Exchange.

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