Police will not be able to respond to all breaches of coronavirus restrictions as crime rises towards pre-pandemic levels, a senior officer has warned.
Police leaders expect a rise in violence, including stabbings, and all types of offences as coronavirus restrictions are gradually eased in England.
The national lockdown that ended on 29 March caused a dramatic reduction in crime, similar to that seen at the beginning of the pandemic last year.
But with looser restrictions now allowing more people to leave home and gather in public spaces, figures are already rising.
From Monday, pubs and restaurants will be allowed to start serving customers outside, and shops, gyms, hairdressers and other businesses can reopen.
Theft, shoplifting, burglary and violent crime linked to alcohol consumption are all expected to increase as a result of the changes.
Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, told The Independent crime and incident levels were already “not far off pre-Covid levels”.
“Members are reporting that it’s getting very close to business as normal,” he said.
“In terms of prioritisation, we have to balance a large amount of demand as it stands and on top of that you’ve got the coronavirus regulations.”
Ch Supt Griffiths said officers would continue to use fines as a last resort, after explaining the current law to people and encouraging them to follow it voluntarily.
He said police would only be able to attend alleged breaches that carry the “most significant risk” to health, such as house parties and unlicenced music events.
“Each force will deal with their prioritisation levels but we’ve got to be pragmatic about what we can and can’t deal with,” the senior officer added.
“When police are called to incidents, judgements can be made about everything else that we have to prioritise. We have to be balanced and pragmatic with the demand and pressure on the service.”
Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said officers across the country would be focusing on “large indoor gatherings” as restrictions ease.
“Any person who organises or attends these events clearly doesn’t need the regulations explaining to them and we will not hesitate to issue fines where necessary,” he added.
“As the rules change in the coming days, weeks and months, we can expect crime, including violent crime, to return to pre-lockdown levels. All forces have robust plans in place to deal with violence and clamp down on violent offenders.”
Police forces were able to increase operations relating to Covid restrictions during national lockdowns, when crime plummeted because criminals were left with fewer opportunities to commit offences.
The most recent data for England and Wales, for the month to 14 February, shows violent crime down more than a third compared to the same period in 2020, shoplifting down 44 per cent, and vehicle crime and residential burglary down by 36 per cent.
Patterns observed following the first national lockdown, when crime had returned to near-normal levels by the summer, suggest figures will rise rapidly as restrictions are eased.
Theft is expected to increase steeply as non-essential retailers open their doors, while opportunities for residential burglary will increase as fewer people stay at home.
Police say the “night-time economy”, such as pubs, bars and nightclubs, has a significant impact on violence associated with alcohol consumption.
Mr Hewitt said more raves and block parties were also expected to “spring up” as the weather gets better.
He told journalists that there would be an increase in the number of officers patrolling nightlife hotspots, shopping areas, entertainment venues and busy parks in the coming weeks.
“Our officers will be more visible at key dates in the roadmap, to engage with the public and keep explaining the restrictions which remain in place at the time, and we hope the public will continue to support us in our efforts to prevent the further spread of the virus,” Mr Hewitt added.
The Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, said lockdown laws had caused them to “do things they probably would rather not be doing”.
“I didn’t join the job expecting to tell people they can’t play football – or that they can’t get together in someone’s house or at a birthday party,” chair John Apter said.
“Everybody is frustrated and fed up with the restrictions we are living under. With the warmer weather, along with the easing of lockdown, mixed with that frustration will create more pressure and challenges for policing.
“We haven’t had to police the night-time economy for most of the past year as pubs and clubs have been closed. When they start opening again, it will add even more pressure on officers who are already working flat out.”
New legislation has been drawn up to allow coronavirus laws to ease incrementally every few weeks, in line with a government “roadmap” out of lockdown that is dependent on factors including positive tests and vaccination uptake.
Asked whether the general public would be able to keep up with frequent changes governing gatherings and travel, Ch Supt Griffiths said he expected a “bit of confusion”.
He called for “clear and consistent messaging”, following previous criticism of government communications over coronavirus laws.
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