Coronavirus: MPs launch investigation into police and Border Force preparations

Police forces have been instructed to draw up local action plans on how to cope with staff shortages

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 12 March 2020 11:07 GMT
Former public health director John Ashton criticises UK coronavirus response

An inquiry has been launched into whether police, the Border Force and other agencies are prepared for the impact of coronavirus.

The Home Affairs Committee said it would be looking at how Home Office agencies were responding to the outbreak, and dealing with the impact on their own staff.

Police forces across Britain have already been ordered to draw up contingency plans for how they will respond to crimes if large numbers of officers fall ill or go into isolation.

Officials insist that violent offences and incidents where there is a safety risk will still be investigated, but admitted that non-urgent investigations may be paused.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said: “It’s very important that all of our public services are prepared for coronavirus.

“We need to know what preparations the Home Office is and should be making and what practical consequence there will be for police and Border Force as coronavirus continues to spread.”

Under the government’s action plan, Border Force officers are working with Public Health England at ports, and have helped repatriate British citizens from affected areas overseas.

New regulations allow police and other agencies to detain individuals suspected of having coronavirus.

As of Thursday morning, the UK was still in the “contain” stage – the first level of the outbreak – but if it reaches the fourth “mitigate” stage the government has warned of severe consequences for the emergency services.

“With a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order,” the government’s plan states.

The Home Affairs Committee has asked for submissions on issues including how police, fire and rescue services are ensuring their plans protect both the public and emergency service workers.

MPs are questioning what “trade-offs” will have to be made by police if a significant number of officers are unable to work and what the impact could be.

They will ask the Home Office how it will ensure contractors fulfil services, especially involving vulnerable people, and whether Border Force can handle the extra work required of it with reduced staff.

The committee has given a deadline for written submissions at noon on 25 March.

Both the Border Force and police need to carry out core functions in the UK’s response to coronavirus, but may be hit by staff shortages (Getty)

Its announcement came as Boris Johnson prepared to chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee where he was expected to declare the next stage of the outbreak in Britain.

Ministers are to discuss moving into the “delay” phase of the coronavirus response, meaning enhanced measures to distance people from each other could be imposed including restrictions on public gatherings.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has played down the possibility of mass travel restrictions after Donald Trump suspended flights between the US and Europe, excluding the UK and Ireland.

Ten people with coronavirus have so far died in the UK, while the total number of confirmed cases stands at 590.

A cabinet minister, who has not been named, was self-isolating while awaiting a test result after coming into contact with health minister Nadine Dorries, who has been diagnosed with coronavirus.

Fellow health minister Edward Argar is also self-isolating at home “as a precaution” after having lunch with Ms Dorries last Thursday and Public Health England is tracing her other contacts.

The World Health Organisation formally declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, saying the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in the past two weeks, and the number of affected countries has tripled.

The organisation hit out at “alarming levels of inaction” in some parts of the world.

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