There is “significant confusion” over whether police officers should be enforcing coronavirus restrictions and a “considerable” number are already in self-isolation, the body which represents rank-and-file officers has warned.
John Apter, national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, hit out at a “lack of clarity” from Government and policing bodies on the role for officers in tackling the crisis.
His comments came after the Health Secretary said ministers were examining the curfews and restrictions imposed in Europe as a method of controlling the spread of coronavirus.
Matt Hancock warned authorities, including the police, could be required to order people to follow the rules on social distancing and “nothing is off the table” if further curbs on people’s freedoms were required to slow the progress of Covid-19 through the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared shocked at the prospect of the police being brought in to enforce coronavirus restrictions when questioned at a press conference on Sunday.
But Mr Hancock said officers had already been given the powers to force the closure of bars and restaurants and indicated that other restrictions would be considered, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In fact on Saturday I signed the order to give the police the power to be able to shut bars and restaurants and pubs if they are still open.”
Speaking to the PA news agency, Mr Apter said: “There is significant confusion and lack of clarity of messaging, not only from certain parts of the Government but within policing itself.
“We want to do the right thing but clarification is needed.
“Mixed messages for officers are deeply unhelpful.”
He said he had raised concerns with the Home Secretary Priti Patel and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), adding: “Clearly there is a part for the police to play in this, if that is needed, but it is a local authority matter and police should not be the ‘go-to’”.
Mr Apter said he “cannot imagine” how officers would police social distancing, adding: “I would urge politicians to think before they make such bold statements.
“I just cannot rationally think how that would work.”
There are a “considerable” number of officers who are self-isolating, Mr Apter also warned, as he re-iterated calls to test police for the virus.
He added: “This massively impacts our ability to police.
“If they were tested we could identify officers who don’t have the virus and can go back to policing quickly and it also gives them the reassurance they need.
“Despite what some people say, it is not business as usual.
“We are policing by crisis and things are going to get worse.”
The provision of protective equipment for officers, like masks, gloves and hand sanitiser, was “patchwork around the country”, he claimed, adding: “NHS workers must be given priority.
“But if police are expected to go out they need to be protected.”
Concerns have also been raised about a lack of advice for police worried about their health and the welfare of their families amid reports of people coughing and spitting at officers, Mr Apter added.
He said: “I clearly understand that we are in a time of crisis but it would be wrong of me not to raise these concerns.
“Police just want to do their job to the best of their ability.”
The NPCC said trading standards and environmental health teams were responsible for dealing with venues and premises not following instructions but councils could call on police for help if needed under existing licensing laws.
A spokesman for the body said: “We do not agree that there is ‘significant confusion and lack of clarity’ but we will discuss concerns with the Police Federation so we can continue to provide the best available advice and information to police officers and staff.
“This situation is moving at an unprecedented pace and the advice from Government and the scientists is frequently changing to reflect that.
“The pace of scientific and governmental development cannot be overestimated.”
Appropriate protective equipment and testing for officers and staff was “critical” and was a “priority”, the NPCC said, adding that health and safety advice had been provided to forces.
The body insisted forces were “well within levels that maintain services to the public” but would not disclose the number of officers in isolation for “operational reasons”.
Reports of deliberate spitting and coughing at police were not “widespread” but “any instance is one too many and unacceptable”, the spokesman added.
The Home Office and the Local Government Association have been contacted for comment.