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Police officers are working in dangerous situations without protection from coronavirus – and now they’re getting ill

Every day, police go face-to-face with citizens unwilling to live by the rules of lockdown, and they do so while exposed

Rabina Khan
Monday 18 May 2020 13:35 BST
Man says he has coronavirus then coughs in police officer's face

Every Thursday we clap for our frontline care workers, but we rarely talk about the frontline police officers who have only basic protective equipment and are just as at risk of contracting Covid-19.

Most of us are adhering to government guidelines on social distancing and not making unnecessary journeys, but those who are ignoring the rules are creating a dilemma for the police force which is already struggling to enforce the government’s instructions. With the arrival of warmer weather, people have been meeting friends, making unnecessary car journeys and gathering in parks to sunbathe or picnic. Even those in high authority have flouted the rules.

Over the past few days, I have watched my daughter comforting one of her best friends who is a police officer. A few weeks ago, during the lockdown, her friend became very unwell with coronavirus symptoms. She was tested in the herd-style way, on a bus, and four days later was told that she had the virus.

My daughter’s friend works in a borough that has a high death rate, where you would think people would be more vigilant, and yet she spent huge amounts of her time at work issuing fines for people not adhering to social gathering rules. She and her colleagues were travelling together, huddled closely in a police van, to be dispersed at different locations. Their personal protective equipment (PPE) was limited to a flimsy mask and gloves.

It was profoundly sad listening to a young police officer’s concerns about her safety and that of her colleagues. It’s an issue which hasn’t been talked about enough.

In April, the Police Federation said contradictory instructions had been issued based on clashing advice from Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive. John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, said that the advice on what PPE to wear in what situations has changed four times – leaving chief officers are following different advice, and creating a postcode lottery of safety for police officers.

Apter added said that “mixed messages from Public Health England, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Health and Safety Executive is nothing short of a disgrace; it’s dangerous and completely unacceptable. This is not a training exercise; this is reality and is a matter of life or death”.

London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon has brought the issue to the attention of London’s deputy mayor for policing and crime. “I have raised the issue of PPE and protection in custody suites in London and was given reassurance on the safety measures in place,” she said. “Reports of police officers being concerned about levels of PPE is deeply worrying. Officers are constantly interacting with the public and they must have the necessary protective equipment. They are not only policing public areas, but many are travelling in groups in police vehicles and entering properties.”

Yet guidance for first responders issued by Public Health England still states: “In the majority of policing activities, it is unlikely that officers will require any additional PPE for normal activities. For situations where close contact (a distance of less than 2 metres) with a person is unavoidable to fulfil the required duty – for example when entering a household, carrying out an essential interview or arrest and restraint – the use of PPE as detailed in section 7.1 is recommended.”

Section 7.1. states that: “Where it is not possible to maintain a two metre or more distance away from an individual, disposable gloves and a disposable plastic apron are recommended.” They only recommend using a fluid repellent surgical face mask in situations where there is the anticipated risk of contamination with splashes, droplets of blood or body fluids.

Considering the conflicting advice, the Defence Police Federation sent out a message on 15 April clarifying the situation. It stated that all officers should have PPE readily available on their person, and which can be donned quickly when deemed necessary, in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained or achieved.

As my daughter’s friend returns to work this week under the new rather confusing guidance of “Stay Alert”, she worries about herself and her colleagues. Will they be returning to work without effective PPE to deal with people who will inevitably flout the rules now that people have been given permission to spend unlimited periods of time outdoors?

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