In Brief

Coronavirus: Officer shortage means police may ignore crimes

Forces may call in the army if staff shortages spiral due to illness

Police are to cut services and drop investigations as forces hit a range of “tipping points” due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Documents seen by The Times show a “graduated withdrawal of service plan”, in which officers will be redeployed to critical activities such as 999 calls and serious crime if forces reach “black status”; the most severe level of interruption to ordinary services.

Blue status signifies business as usual, green means there has been a “moderate, temporary impact” and amber indicates there has been a “moderate sustained impact” on services, the paper reports.

Red means there has been a “severe impact” and black means “critical impact” in which the situation has moved beyond the capacity of the police to deliver “essential” critical activities.

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A senior source told The Times: “If you get to black, the force basically can’t function. You will either have to call in the army or request aid from other police forces. It’s edge-of-the-cliff stuff. I fear we will reach black in certain parts of this country, which is unprecedented.

“It is possible arrests won’t be made. A suspect’s journey through the custody suite involves 12 different people. If a police force is on its knees they won’t be able to make those arrests.”

Earlier this month, The Sun reported that officers would be told to focus on serious incidents and “maintaining public order” amid projected officer shortages.

The prime minister also told a press conference in early March there were “long-established plans by which the police will, obviously, keep the public safe but they will prioritise those things that they have to do”.

“The army is of course always ready to back-fill as and when, but that is under the reasonable worst case scenario,” Boris Johnson added.

The Times understands that at least one regional force has already reached red status, in which most officers are redeployed to “immediate, priority incidents”.

With infection rates expected to soar among the police due to their wide interaction levels, sickness levels could rise to 20% or 30% next month. Sources told the paper that forces would then begin to withdraw from a number of activities, including responding to offences such as theft, affray and cannabis dealing.

With pubs and bars shut, fewer people on the streets and no need to monitor football matches or airports, forces have been given some “breathing space” with which to prepare for the challenges ahead, writes The Times’ crime and security editor, Fiona Hamilton.

Police were last week handed new powers, meaning they can issue a £60 fixed penalty to people found to be in breach of lockdown rules. The fine lowers to £30 if paid within 14 days. Second-time offenders will pay a £120 fixed penalty, doubling on each further repeat offence.

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