Coronavirus outbreak could increase gang violence in UK, report finds

Social distancing measures will increase competition between drug dealers, Policy Exchange finds

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 23 March 2020 14:25 GMT
Coronavirus: 1.5 million 'vulnerable people' in UK will be asked at home for at least 12 weeks

The coronavirus outbreak could increase gang violence in Britain as drug dealers compete over a shrinking market, a report has warned.

With bars and nightclubs closed, and most parties cancelled, the Policy Exchange think tank forecast a dramatic reduction in purchases of cocaine and other drugs.

A report released on Monday said the change “may cause an increase in inter-gang rivalry faced with dwindling revenue streams, resulting in increased violence”.

School closures may allow street stabbings to continue at a high rate, it added, and robbery could worsen if coronavirus forces police to do fewer patrols and stop and search operations.

Addressing parliament on Monday, the home secretary admitted that school closures could make children vulnerable to “county lines” gangs who use teenagers to transport and deal drugs.

Priti Patel said: “Children are not at school and they therefore could become prey to gangs and are equally more vulnerable, so we're working with the police to make sure there's greater work taking place on protecting young people.”

The Policy Exchange report also warned that a reduction in neighbourhood policing "may embolden street gangs, increasing their sense of impunity".

“This will be exacerbated if courts are forced to close to slow the spread of the virus," it added.

Richard Walton, a senior fellow at the Policy Exchange and former Metropolitan Police officer, said: “The risk with an increase in gang violence over the comings months is that stabbings in particular so often require intensive care treatment. Hospitals must be spared this extra strain on their resources as they cope with the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The report also predicted an increase in domestic violence through quarantine and social distancing measures, as well as rising fraud, online scams and shoplifting.

Cressida Dick: Met Police not ruled out boosting numbers in London amid Coronavirus

Amid reports of burglars posing as NHS workers testing for coronavirus, the Policy Exchange warned of “distraction burglaries” were likely to become more common.

But it added that other forms of crime may be reduced as a result of the outbreak, including disorderly behaviour and fights related to bars, pubs, nightclubs and restaurants.

Police forces across the country have drawn up plans for coping with the loss of up to a fifth of officers and staff during the coronavirus pandemic.

Senior officers said there would be a “graduated withdrawal of service” if the pandemic worsens, with emergency responses and supporting the NHS prioritised over other functions.

The Policy Exchange report said that if the ability to deal with anything other than the most serious crimes diminishes, it could “loosen temporarily the fabric of law and order in society”.

It said that a reduction in neighbourhood officers would “leave some communities vulnerable to local disorder and criminal opportunists, while reducing the visibility of the police”.

Official government advice predicted that riots are unlikely, but the research warned that the reduced presence of police officers could “leading to occasional pockets of street disorder” that could spread.

Officers have been given powers to forcibly detain people for coronavirus isolation or testing, but the Policy Exchange predicted that the British model of policing by consent would assist social cohesion and cooperation.

“The impact on crime and law and order will be profound but short term and not of the same scale, complexity or severity as on the health service,” the report concluded.

“Some crime will increase but a lot of crime will decrease, helping to balance crime-related demands. The investigation of serious crimes will continue but less serious crimes will result in a much-reduced service.”

The report recommended boosting Neighbourhood Watch schemes across the country and working to maintain police Safer Neighbourhood Teams with a visible street presence.

It called for a national advertising campaign to raise morale across the country and build social cohesion, alongside improved cooperation and information sharing between authorities.

Mr Walton called coronavirus the “biggest challenge to policing since the Second World War”.

“With stretched resources, the police will have to adapt faster than ever before,” he added.

“The government will have to give them all possible support, including military backup so that the police can maintain law and order on the streets.”

The report was released a day after the National Crime Agency (NCA) warned that organised crime groups and paedophiles may try to exploit the outbreak.

Investigators have found coronavirus-themed malicious apps and websites, as well as email phishing attacks aimed at stealing personal and financial information.

There have been numerous reports of people ordering protective equipment and other linked products that never arrived, and a British man has been arrested over fake coronavirus treatment kits.

The NCA warned that with more children spending time online alone following school closures, there was a risk of increased offending by paedophiles.

And people smugglers are reportedly telling migrants the UK is safer from coronavirus than continental Europe in order to boost demand for dangerous small boat crossings over the English Channel.

The Home Affairs Committee has started an inquiry into the preparedness of the NCA, police, border force and other agencies to respond to the pandemic.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in