As with the rest of the island, the pandemic led to the Police facing unprecedented challenges as it not only had to deal with a raft of new laws but also staff sickness, isolation requirements and the sad loss of one of its own from the virus.
In this part of our series examining the Chief Constable’s annual report, we focus on the Constabulary’s response to the pandemic and how much strain it put not only the force under, but also the officers working in it.
While the island entered its first lockdown on March 23, the Constabulary had been planning since March 2 when its command team met to discuss the worsening infection rates in the UK and to examine its likely impact on the island. By March 4, the Police were starting work on establishing how staff could work from home and the live link to the Courts which were to become a regular fixture for most of the rest of the year.
The Chief Constable’s report includes tributes to former colleague first contact officer (and retired sergeant) Richie Lloyd who died from covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic and John Kinrade who died following a short illness. Gary Roberts said: ‘They were both remarkable characters, who were liked, respected and trusted by everyone who knew them. It is unusual for the Constabulary to lose two colleagues in such a short time and to lose two such good people was especially difficult.’
In his report, Mr Roberts says that the Police’s overall strategy ‘did not change throughout the pandemic’. He said: ‘Our primary objective was to work with others to mitigate the threats posed by covid-19 in a way that protected the health service, safeguarded the public and ensured that our own people remained well.
‘We sought to achieve these aims by working in partnership with the Cabinet Office and other government agencies; by closely aligning ourselves to Operation Talla, the National Police Chiefs Council covid-19 operation; by putting in place an effective and flexible command structure; by implementing business continuity plans; by making effective use of social media to communicate with the public; by ensuring that all possible steps were taken to keep police officers safe and by using existing tasking processes to ensure that emergency legislation was enforced in a legitimate and proportionate manner.’
To establish a working structure, one superintendent was given command responsibility for all planning using the gold, silver bronze approach, with operational staffing responsibility at bronze level lying with a sergeant. A second superintendent took responsibility for operational command, effectively ensuring that planning was turned into activity, including but not limited to enforcement. And a third superintendent was effectively held in reserve in case either senior colleague fell ill. He maintained responsibility for organisational infrastructure: finance and so on.
Mr Roberts said: ‘The discipline set out in the command structure ensured that planning was comprehensive and effective. It also allowed government policy, the frequent changes of emergency legislation and emerging scientific evidence to be swiftly converted into guidance to officers. This enabled the Constabulary to be fleet of foot as it encountered problems, many of which were truly unique in nature and scope. The command structure also allowed for periodic reviews to be conducted, which informed planning for the second and third lockdown periods. Subtle changes were therefore introduced as operational lessons were learned.’
Working With the UK
From the early days of the pandemic, the Police linked with the National Police Chiefs Council Operation Talla, which standardised the policing approach to the pandemic while allowing forces to react to their own local circumstances. Dialogue took place on at least a weekly basis and this helped inform the approach taken by the Constabulary on matters such as the use of PPE, the approach to enforcement and the latest scientific advice.
Mr Roberts said these links ‘had a tangible benefit’, such examples include when the island’s Constabulary struggled to get the proper PPE it needed to keep its officers safe, it was supplied by Police Scotland. But it wasn’t only a one way street, as the Manx police were able to offer advice to their UK counterparts for unlocking.
The Chief Constable said: ‘This meant that we were able to support other public services, which were also encountering supply difficulties. At one point we even supplied swabs for testing purposes to the DHSC from our forensic stocks.
‘Together with the other public bodies involved in dealing with the pandemic, senior officers met with senior military officers in order to review progress. It was readily determined that we did not need military assistance and that our planning and logistical activities would prove effective. As the Island emerged from lockdown our experiences were, in turn, used by our colleagues in the UK to prepare for the lifting of some restrictions in the later summer of 2020.’
Island Comes Together
One of the good aspects of the pandemic was the coming together of the Manx community and the Police formed part of that glue which worked to solve the problems thrown up by the rona. In his report, the Chief Constable says that while pandemic planning had been done, no one knew how it would work in practice and other elements landed on the desk of his officers without warning, one of these being where homeless people could go while the rest of us were ordered to stay at home.
He said: ‘A brilliant piece of collaborative work led by one of the Constabulary’s senior officers, Chief Inspector Cathryn Bradley, and by the head of the probation service, Geraldine Martin, led to homeless people being found accommodation in a local hotel. At the beginning the problem had seemed intractable and despite it not being their responsibility, they simply picked it up and dealt with it in a vigorous and impressive way.’
The pandemic, especially during the three lockdown periods, impacted on the mental health and wellbeing of many people. The effects may be with us for some considerable time, but police officers and their colleagues in the mental health service did all that they could within the law to get help to those who needed it. Similarly, many people will have suffered in silence during the lockdown periods because of domestic abuse. Efforts were made to create safe spaces to which people who were suffering from domestic abuse could go in order to seek support. However, by the very nature of the problem, many will have found the pandemic and its lockdown periods to have been hugely difficult.
Throughout the pandemic, reports of domestic incidents also rose by 9%. During lockdown one, this includes an average of two calls a day to the police.
Mr Roberts said: ‘The 2020 lockdown brought into focus several important issues: domestic abuse reports increased and there can be little doubt that victims of domestic abuse found lockdown extremely difficult. Similarly, the mental wellbeing of many people suffered and the Constabulary frequently found itself dealing with mental health issues in the community.’
Throughout the pandemic, the role of the police has, at times, been criticised by people who saw either themselves or others being prosecuted for what was at other times perfectly normal behaviour.
However, Mr Robert’s report outlined that the Police only used enforcement as a last resort, which was, he says, only used by officers after they had ‘firstly engaged with the public, explained the law and then encouraged compliance.’
He added: ‘In order to ensure that there was a consistent approach to enforcement two important safeguards were created: enforcement action, such as an arrest, required the consent of an inspector, except in emergencies, and all prosecutions were subject to approval by the on-call prosecutor from HM Attorney General’s Chambers. Officers were consistently reminded that ordinary, decent people would make mistakes and that the approach to enforcement wasn’t about dealing with such people in anything other than respectful, low key way. As a result, while 0.91% of the population were warned that they had breached the law, formal enforcement action was taken against only 0.13% of the population. In other words, few people were prosecuted and then only when they had been warned before. (Some received as many as five warnings before they were prosecuted.) Occasionally serious breaches led to immediate enforcement action, but such cases were comparatively rare.
‘At the start of the second and third lockdowns the Constabulary wrote to those who had been formally warned about breaching emergency laws, or had previously been prosecuted, in order to remind them of the law and their obligations under it. It was very rare that those who had been reminded then went on to break the law again.’
Mr Roberts also said that ‘some fairly significant delays have occurred in the criminal justice system as a result of the pandemic’.
As with every workforce, the Constabulary faced difficulties with absence levels peaking at 25% during the first lockdown and over 20% in the third lockdown. Mr Roberts added: ‘The third lockdown presented greater challenges because of the virility of the Kent variant of the virus and the introduction of whole household isolation, which had not been in place in 2020. Key worker testing pathways offered the promise of easier return to work for officers and staff during the first lockdown, but the promised system did not really function effectively.’
Despite this, he added that the Police in the island did not reach red level, which would have seen the Constabulary only respond to emergencies, but it did reach amber levels which led to mitigation measures being put in place to ensure services to the public were maintained.
The policing of the pandemic also led to the Constabulary incurring surprisingly limited costs; £10,887 was spent on personal protective equipment. £53,492 was spent on extra duty, notably incurred by making unavoidable late shift changes.