One year on: Policing the pandemic
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“The force has done more than ever to keep people safe”
Faced with an unprecedented and rapidly evolving situation, police forces across the country had to adapt to a new set of challenges almost overnight as normal life ground to a halt.
Assistant Chief Constable Andy Prophet has spent much of the past 12 months as the Gold Commander responsible for our policing response to the Government’s Covid-19 regulations.
“We knew it was really different because the streets, the parks, the bars were all empty and as a result we saw a huge reduction in the number of calls from the public,” he said. “So things felt very different very quickly. Then there was the reality of going home, listening to news and hearing about the awful reality of people being hospitalised and dying.”
As Covid-19 is a public health emergency, the police had two major roles as the situation unfolded.
The first was to reassure, maintain law and order, and keep people safe. Alongside that, the force played an important role coordinating the response from partner organisations including the NHS, county and district councils, and the fire and ambulance services.
ACC Prophet said: “Partner agencies were learning on the job. How do you rapidly increase bed capacity in a hospital? How do you get sufficient PPE to all the people who need it to keep them safe when they’re dealing with people who are critically ill and potentially infectious? There’s no command textbook to deal with these things.
“In policing and across the partnership we had to re-write that rulebook of how we do what we need to do to keep everyone safe.”
Strong guidelines were put in place early on to encourage face masks and social distancing, and the force’s IT and Estates teams reacted quickly to help people work differently and to ensure offices were as Covid-secure as possible.
The rate of absence amongst in the force staff peaked at about 400 people off, either self-isolating or shielding. This was way below worse-case forecasts, and amongst the lowest of police forces nationally.
ACC Prophet said: “I genuinely think this is testament to the professionalism of all our teams. They have been superb, not only delivering policing in these unprecedented times but also at keeping themselves and colleagues as safe as humanly possible.”
With the police now responsible for ensuring the public followed the lockdown rules, ACC Prophet said it was essential to have empathy with people who’d suddenly had extensive restrictions placed on their lives.
“We police by consent. The public overwhelmingly recognise and appreciate the fact that we, the police, are also the public. We are on their side and it is a shared effort to keep each other safe by sticking to the rules.
“We had a really strong communication plan and saw tremendous compliance. In the first lockdown, the roads were empty, the 999 calls fell off a cliff, crime fell off a cliff. I think the public at large were genuinely shocked and scared by what they were seeing and hearing in their communities and on the news.
“Coming out of the first lockdown, the summer felt fairly normal, but the tricky bit came in autumn. Schools went back, the infection numbers started to rise, and we had more restrictions were put in place – the tier system, then the second lockdown, and then back into lockdown in January.
“The vast majority of our engagements were the first three Es, and we targeted the clear and blatant breaches - the people who really deserved enforcement action, we took action against.
“People are staying at home with their children, worried about their jobs, going stir crazy, just like I’m sure we all feel at times.”
Lockdown has impacted the number and nature of the crimes committed and placed unexpected demands on Essex Police staff who’ve had to juggle work and domestic commitments.
“We’ve had 21,000 fewer victims in the last 12 months. We’ve solved more violent crimes than we did the year before. We’ve dealt with more people using the roads dangerously, more violent domestic abusers. The force has done more than ever to keep people safe through Covid.
“We’ve also had specific challenges with unlicensed music events and protests. We had to police those protests in the right way – trying to be supportive and understanding of the pressures people are under but adhering to the regulations. It’s been a key policing conundrum to get that balance right.
“Covid has affected everybody and of course that includes all of us. Children haven’t been at school, and I know the pressures that brings on a family unit, many of us have been worried about parents and grandparents, but despite all this we’ve carried on. That’s amazing and I think has brought out the best in us, policing at its resilient and caring best.
“There’s not one area of the business that hasn’t adjusted, adapted and carried on delivering its core mission. There’s been a full-force effort to keep policing going and keep the public safe.
“The resilience and willingness of our workforce to roll up their sleeves, be flexible and get things done has been quite simply outstanding.”