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Military could be brought in to offset police shortages in coronavirus outbreak

The idea is among a series of measures to help deal with a worst-case scenario of staff shortages.

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Police patrol the streets of Melton Mowbray, where random checks on essential travel are taking place (Mike Egerton/PA)

Police patrol the streets of Melton Mowbray, where random checks on essential travel are taking place (Mike Egerton/PA)

Police patrol the streets of Melton Mowbray, where random checks on essential travel are taking place (Mike Egerton/PA)

The military could be brought in to bolster police numbers during the coronavirus crisis, with up to a fifth of officers expected to be absent in the Government’s worst-case scenario.

National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) chairman Martin Hewitt said members of the armed forces would take up back office roles which would not involve interaction with the public in order to free up officers for frontline policing.

The body also revealed officers had already issued some fines to people breaching lockdown rules, less than 24 hours after new laws came into force.

The news comes as Derbyshire Police defended using drones to deter people from flouting Covid-19 lockdown rules by walking in the Peak District and it emerged Avon and Somerset Police were conducting random vehicle checks in Bristol to ensure only essential journeys are being made.

Meanwhile there have been warnings to beware of bogus police officers and fake Government text scams claiming people have been slapped with a fine.

Coronavirus
Police stop motorists in Park Street, Bristol, where random checks on essential travel are taking place (Ben Birchall/PA)

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Mr Hewitt said: “We are prepared for a significant absence level.

“The Government’s worst-case scenario is on a fifth of our staff being off at any one time.

“Some will be ill, and others will clearly be either self-isolating or caring for people who are ill.”

Mr Hewitt said “we are not close to the worst-case scenario” and that measures such as making use of special constables, encouraging recently retired officers to come back to the service or serving officers to delay their retirement, and cancelling leave are being used to bolster numbers.

Once all of those options are exhausted, “well-rehearsed arrangements” to bring in the military would be considered.

But he stressed: “We are nowhere near that at the moment.

“We are a very considerable way away from that situation at the moment.

“We do not need military help at the moment.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Any help from armed forces would only be a “backfilling role” to take up work “police officers who do not regularly interact with the public undertake, so they can allow our colleagues to get back and work on the front line”.

Uniformed Home Office staff such as Border Force officers could also be drafted in, he suggested.

The NPCC refused to say how many police were self-isolating and off work but some individual forces have provided information.

Merseyside Police said 12% of the workforce were off sick with around 5% self-isolating for Covid-19 symptoms.

Cumbria and Greater Manchester forces both said 10% of their workforces were absent. The rate is currently 12% in Devon and Cornwall and 6% in Durham. Although not all absences will be for self-isolation.

The Metropolitan Police reportedly already has an absence rate of 20%.

While Mr Hewitt admitted there will be things police could no longer do, he insisted there were no types of crime forces would not respond to.

He said police officers who would usually be dealing with incidents at football matches or pubs, clubs and bars have been freed up but warned online crimes and domestic abuse are expected to rise.

There have been some “minor shoplifting offences” which have “received a disproportionate amount of attention” but “we are not seeing looting or significant disorder in supermarkets”, he added.

As of 1pm on Thursday, officers in England were given powers to enforce restrictions on movement in England with fines among other measures.

Known as the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020, similar rules have been put in place in Wales and Scotland but are yet to be enacted in Northern Ireland.

Police tactics have attracted criticism from some, with UK civil liberties group Big Brother Watch branding the drone move “sinister” and “counter-productive”.

West Mercia Police warned parents whose children break lockdown rules they could be reported to social services.

There has also been confusion over whether members of the public can drive to nearby beauty spots to do exercise.

Some forces have said this should not take place as it is classed as non-essential travel, although laws do not specifically forbid it.

Mr Hewitt said he expected officers to take a “common sense approach” to policing but urged people to take the restrictions seriously by limiting trips out of doors to prevent spreading the virus, adding: “This is a national emergency. It is not a national holiday.

“There’s absolutely no intention to be heavy-handed but the message needs to be got across to people.”

When asked about reports that people were deliberately coughing at police officers while claiming to have coronavirus – which could see them sent to jail for up to two years – Mr Hewitt said: “Quite frankly, the thought that anybody does that disgusts me and they should be dealt with very seriously.”

PA