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Coronavirus: Detention powers sought by PSNI chief Simon Byrne

Byrne wants legislation to hold people with virus

The Chief Constable has called for police powers to detain people in Northern Ireland suspected of having coronavirus.

Simon Byrne made the comments yesterday as an older patient with underlying health conditions in England became the first person in the UK to die from the virus.

A total of 115 other cases have now been confirmed in the UK including three in Northern Ireland, with a further six cases confirmed in the Republic.

UK health officials have moved to the second phase of their strategy, from 'containment' to 'delay' which aims to slow the spread.

Detention powers are already available in England and Wales, allowing police and public health professionals to detain and direct individuals to quarantined areas if they are at risk of having or spreading the virus.

In Scotland, health boards can also restrict the movements of those at risk and apply for a court order for quarantine and medical examination.

Similar powers are available to the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, but not to the PSNI at present.

Speaking at a meeting of the Policing Board yesterday, Mr Byrne said: "Certainly in terms of legislation you'll see in England and Wales there's been powers made available to the police service to, basically, compulsorily detain affected people.

"We don't yet have that power so we're in dialogue with the Department of Justice to see if that can be replicated here in case we need to use it."

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Byrne said he did not expect "scenes from a horror film" if cases of coronavirus increase in Northern Ireland.

"We're following the public health's advice, which is similar to everybody else at the moment," he said. "The disease, whilst the dots in the map are increasing, it hasn't yet exploded into the country.

"So we're following the advice about personal hygiene. Clearly you would imagine in terms of what I need to do with senior colleagues is to make sure our preparedness is at optimum."

Mr Byrne also expected staffing levels to be reduced, through both illness and by those needing to care for family.

"Our commitment is to continue to staff the 999 service, respond to emergency calls and respond to serious crime and terrorism," he said.

He added that extra care would be needed in areas of increased risk of infection such as custody centres.

"It's easy to speculate some sort of scenes from a horror film or a famous Hollywood movie where we're dealing with pandemic and virus," he said.

"But at the moment our assumption is actually that as people fall ill, that will quieten down the calls for service from us.

"Our priority is to encourage people to remain calm through a period of uncertainty. We're all probably facing a unique experience that we've not seen the like of for a 100 years."

Options to cope with reduced numbers include 12-hour shifts and cancelling rest days.

The PSNI chief added: "We're not complacent and we can use a lot of experience here from operating at pace in different times.

"Whether it's dealing with complex investigations or serious disorder to keep officers and staff available to work."

Belfast Telegraph