A leading solicitor has said lawyers are “appalled” by safety arrangements in the PSNI’s specialist Covid-19 custody suite.
It was reported this week that 53 alleged offenders with coronavirus have been detained at the 10-cell block at Musgrave police station in Belfast over the last two months.
Part of the arrangements include a perspex screen dividing detectives and suspects in interview rooms.
Experienced criminal defence lawyer Joe Rice said the set up left many colleagues feeling vulnerable to infection.
Although arrangements have been made to allow solicitors to have remote consultations with clients, he said they are often still required to be present during police interviews.
“Solicitors are appalled at the new proposals for interviewing clients in the ten cell block unit at Musgrave Police Station,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“An interview room with a perspex screen is inadequate at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
“These adjustments are being heralded by the police as effective and dynamic but my view is that they have been put together without consultation from the legal profession.
“Given the small layout of the interview room, they also don’t take into account that not only will solicitors need Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) but others including interpreters and appropriate adults for vulnerable persons will have to be suitably equipped.
“I think it’s fair to say that the new measures fall far short of the standard that was to be expected with this proposal.”
Mr Rice added there has already been a hepatitis A outbreak in Antrim custody suite in June 2018 as well as an outbreak of lice in Musgrave Custody suite previously.
“So it’s not as if these places are known for the quality of their hygiene in these custody suites. They’re small and get all sorts of infections.”
In response, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: “Police Service NI has always responded quickly, dynamically and effectively to address the unprecedented and unforeseen operating environment Covid-19 has created within police custody suites.
“The dedicated, isolated custody suite at Musgrave Station has been put in place to best manage the welfare of not only COVID symptomatic detained persons but police officers, staff, legal representatives and any other organisations required to use the facility. It is co-staffed with our healthcare colleagues and rigorous anti-infection measures have been put place to help ensure the safety of all.
“PPE is available to staff and visitors in all custody suites in line with national guidance. An interview room which allows for appropriate social distancing has also been identified in each operational suite.
“We have been, and we continue to, engage with the PPS, the Lord Chief Justice’s Office and with the Law Society of Northern Ireland to listen to concerns, and we have established remote communications for legal representatives to consult with clients and attend interviews, reducing the requirement for physical attendance at the station.
“Police will continue to work with criminal justice partners to ensure that criminal justice processes run effectively thereby ensuring that the rights of both victims and alleged offenders are upheld.”
Joe Rice’s comments follow a report from the Press Association, who were given access to Musgrave station to view how the PSNI has adapted during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 suite is on a different block to suspects who do not display symptoms, and has strict infection control measures.
This requires officers and staff who interact with detainees to wear full PPE, including a body suit, face shield, respirator mask, glasses and gloves.
Since March, police officers working in the community have also been issued with spit and bite guards after some have been spat on by people claiming to have coronavirus.
Chief Inspector of Musgrave custody suite, Peter Brannigan, told PA that a 44% drop in the number of detainees due to lockdown did not mean it was less challenging for staff.
He explained a high proportion were being held for more serious offences.
Suspects are also spending more time in cells, with social distancing meaning more court appearances are taking place via video link.