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Paying specials among civil contingency response options

Home Affairs Committee told that lack of officer testing could also be affecting front line numbers

Paying Specials or their employers to provide more shift cover and bringing back retired officers to provide back-up are among the options being considered if officer strength is affected by the spread of COVID-19.

The lead for Civil Contingencies at the National Police Chiefs' Council, Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, also said protective kit is being made available and monitored at national level on a daily basis to keep officer numbers up.

With speculation mounting that the official response is about to be escalated and fears increasing about how many officers could be affected, DCC Netherton set out how front line officers are being supported.

“We are monitoring that on a daily basis across the country,” he said. “We are also closely monitoring the amount of protective equipment all forces have. We’re making sure that is shared among all forces. At this moment in time, we have no issues and continue to deliver business as usual. But as that changes, things will change in due course.”

Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill, Strategic Lead at the National Police Coordination Centre, added: “It’s an evolving issue on an unprecedented scale. It’s a moving piece, constantly.”

Firearms, custody and call handling capabilities are being monitored at national level through daily returns.

Should the situation deteriorate beyond mutual aid not being enough then options being considered include using retired officers, making greater use of Special Constables and bringing charities into policing work.

But getting officers access to testing is an immediate issue as the current priority is NHS staff.

DCC Netherton accepted the priority was necessary  but warned it meant officers that could be cleared for duty were being held back.

He told the committee: “That is an issue of concern. Our staff may have a family member, a school child, that means they’re locked down for two weeks. Our request, and we are talking to the NHS is if we can speed it up. It’s definitely doctors, ambulance crews will need it before us but if there’s any spare we’ll take it.”

Should police numbers fall over the coming months then officers would be moved round the country. Special Constables and retired officers are also part of the planning.

ACC Wetherill said: “If there is a threat to the public and we need to move resource to do it, we will do.”

He added that the NHS would be calling on the military before the police.

DCC Netherton gave more details:  “We have a working group looking at terms and conditions and working practices – paying specials to come in - paying them or their employers. We are also looking at officers who may be retiring within the next year.”

DCC Netherton also revealed that police coordination had moved to a national response last week, led by NPCC chair Martin Hewitt.

Officers will get kit to protect them, procured through the NHS.

Committee chairman Yvette Cooper asked how officers would respond to situations such as domestic violence call-outs.

ACC Wetherill said officers would work as normal and make a a dynamic risk assessment before gaining entry.

He said: “Every forces has masks and gloves. They can get hold of it if they need it. You don’t know it’s there til you get there. They’re used to dealing with that scenario every day.”

With rumours circulating that the capital is about to be put into lock-down, the pair were asked if the new powers being created by the government were enough.

DCC Netherton said the powers had been designed to support health workers: “As this disease has developed, the powers you require become different. The new legislation, we have been in discussion, we don’t see a problem with them.

“I don’t want the public to think we’ve got these draconian laws to lock somebody up if they cough. The UK laws are such that there are powers in the statute book somewhere that we can use if we need to.”

Ms Cooper wanted police forces to know their work was appreciated: “Can I just put on record our huge thanks to you and to all of your officers and all of your staff. It will be very much appreciated.”  

ACC Wetherill warned the crisis would not be over in a few weeks: “This is a long-haul situation. The end game is a vaccine but the situation will develop.”

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