Coronavirus: UK must prepare for ‘volatile and agitated society’ after lockdown lifted, senior police officer warns

Exclusive: ‘Unintended consequences’ of lockdown feared, including rising mental health issues and unemployment

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 19 April 2020 21:03 BST
UK coronavirus lockdown extended for three weeks, says Dominic Raab

Police must prepare for a “more volatile and agitated society” after the end of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, a senior officer has warned.

With the restrictions extended until at least 7 May, there are concerns about the effect of unemployment, mental health issues, abuse inside homes and a general need for “release”.

The president of the Police Superintendents’ Association (PSA) called for leaders to prepare for what might happen when the current restrictions are lifted.

“There’s not been much debate at the moment about what the future looks like because we’re all in the present,” Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths told The Independent.

“But we’ve got to look at the social and economic impact … there are going to be people who are out of work, businesses that have not been able to sustain themselves, and the impact on society will start to come through.

“If there are challenges economically, there is sometimes a rise in crime and disorder.”

Some research has predicted that the coronavirus outbreak will trigger a global economic slump bigger than the Great Depression of the 1930s, although there is hope that the lifting of lockdown conditions around the world will swiftly reinvigorate markets.

Ch Spt Griffiths said he was not concerned about violent protests as much as the possibility that “with all this suppression at some point it will be released”.

“My worry is that there will be a whole load of societal impacts from what we have gone through over those months.

“Those consequences could be a more volatile and agitated society.

“We need to think about how to best support, help and engage with our communities so they can get through what has been a really significant impact on every aspect of their lives.”

The senior officer is concerned that the lifting of restrictions will spark a surge in police incidents as people flood to reopened pubs and bars to celebrate.

He warned that rising unemployment will have “consequences for individuals, communities and the impact on societal behaviour”, and potentially cause an increase in theft.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council previously raised concern that drug-related crime could increase because of supply problems and price rises during the coronavirus outbreak.

“If the cost continues to increase they may become more desperate to get money,” Ch Spt Griffiths said.

“I think there will be consequences from this lockdown in all sorts of areas, even ones that aren’t on our radar at the moment.”

Social distancing measures have forced the NHS, rehabilitation providers and charities to stop much of their face-to-face work with substance abusers.

Psychological services have also been hit, amid concerns that weeks or months of isolation will dramatically increase the rate and severity of mental illness.

“The suppression at the moment is clearly done for the right reasons to stop the spread of the disease, but there may be impacts for individual mental health and what then will that mean?” Ch Spt Griffiths asked.

“We’ve got to try and think through the consequences of these actions, and what are the unintended consequences.”

Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales (Si Barber)

While the amount of overall crime recorded by police has dropped by 28 per cent in England and Wales over the past month, Ch Spt Griffiths fears that it might not present a true picture.

He said people may not report incidents from during the lockdown, especially abuse being committed inside homes, until it is lifted – creating a fresh onslaught of demand.

While online crime reports, including many over the coronavirus lockdown, have rocketed, calls to 999 and the 101 non-emergency number have fallen dramatically.

Some of the drop in calls can be attributed to fewer crimes taking place in public places, but there are anecdotal reports of people being unwilling to call the emergency services because they do not want to add pressure during the outbreak, or believe there will be no response.

Many reports of child and sexual abuse are often made by third parties, such as teachers and social workers, who will not currently be meeting victims.

But last week, the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council revealed that only 10 per cent of police officers and staff were currently absent, and that many were working from home.

“Our message for the public is to continue reporting crime and incidents to us,” Martin Hewitt said. “We will come when you call for help.”

Ch Spt Griffiths raised concern that crimes being committed in households, such as domestic violence and child abuse, were not being reported because victims are trapped inside with perpetrators.

“I don’t think we truly understand what’s going on behaviorally with the public and whether that’s having a significant impact on crime recording patterns,” he added.

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