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COVID-19 enforcement challenges remain say chiefs and council leaders

Police and local government leaders have warned significant challenges remain in enforcing the COVID-19 restrictions.

COVID-19 enforcement challenges remain say chiefs and council leaders

Date - 9th December 2020
By - Chris Smith

Battling to get access to premises where restrictions are being ignored, poor timing of lockdown starts and ineffective communications from central government were all highlighted by the leaders of frontline workers who have had to enforce the rules.

The concerns were raised with peers on the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords who are reviewing how the emergency powers have been used during the COVID-19 crisis.

The virtual evidence hearing was told by the leaders of the Police Federation, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) and local authority chiefs that vital advice was ignored by Number 10 ahead of announcements on new restrictions.

John Apter, National Chair of the Police Federation revealed warnings had been made to the government that introducing tougher lockdowns after weekends would lead to illegal gatherings and add to pressure on forces at a point when crime was returning to normal levels.

“It was understood by the Home Office but it didn’t seem to filter through to Number 10,” he said.

The illegal gatherings had added an ‘intolerable pressure’ on officers.

Mr Apter said: “The way that message was delivered… it was almost a green light for party time. Unfortunately, our concerns were ignored.”

Mixed messaging about what was guidance and what was actual lawbreaking has led to confusion and created extra work for frontline officers.

Paddy Tipping, Chair of the APCC, was heavily critical of Number 10's communication with the public during the pandemic: "

“I think simplicity is the watchword. The situation that we had on a couple of occasions, where enforcement guidance came out some days after changes, really wasn’t acceptable. We have moved on from that. We are in a better position but - let’s be clear - at the time it wasn’t good.”

Mr Tipping added: “Having good communication, good notice, and a chance to challenge things before they are introduced is the right way forward. It is manifestly wrong that police officers were being asked to issue fixed penalty notices when the professional advice behind it wasn’t available.”

He added: “A good example is the social distancing rule. It’s clearly guidance but the general public didn’t understand that.”

Mr Apter added: “Police officers were often criticised for not enforcing something that was guidance.”

Local authorities said they had also been affected by late and poor communication from central government about the imposition of new lockdown rules leaving them under pressure to prepare staff in time.

Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, Chair of West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said the limited notice of weekly changes – and at one point two days’ notice – had stretched limited resources.

“The short notice has been really hard for us as councils to grapple with. When we’ve seen it on the news, sometimes that’s been the first we’ve heard of it. Obviously it’s been a reactive situation but that’s put a pressure on councils,” she said.

The council leader also warned the focus on Christmas festivities over other faiths had added to community tensions.

Cllr Hinchcliffe also revealed enforcement work by councils was limited by the different agencies involved in creating regulations.

She said: “Police can enforce against masks [not being worn] but not visors as they are HSE guidance.”

She also revealed some late night premises were abusing the law and deliberately obstructing police officers to avoid heavy fines.

Cllr Hinchcliffe said: “It’s actually cheaper to obstruct an officer from going in - it costs £100 fine – than it is to act to let them in and find you’re not COVID compliant – and that could be a £1,000 fine. So getting access to some organisations can be quite difficult.”

But Cllr James Jamieson, Chair of the Local Government Association, also revealed the fast-moving events had also created a benefit for the local partnerships involved with enforcement work.

There is now a greater flexibility on the statutory response time before action is taken against premises flouting the law. The 28-day wait for enforcement waived – and this could be carried on after the COVID-19 crisis ends to help tackle ASB.

Cllr Jamieson said: “We can in effect issue a warning notice and if that is not adhered to act very quickly.”

His assessment was that enforcement partnership teams were now working well together: “That discrepancy between guidance, legislation and, actually, the ability to enforce is something that has troubled us but I think we’ve got there in the end.”

Mr Tipping said: “If the last nine months has taught us, policing is about far more than just fighting crime.”

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