We’ve had to deal with shocking statistics over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic – from the unacceptably low levels of suitable PPE supplies across the public sector at the start of this crisis, to the daily updates on the latest death toll. These numbers contextualise the realities of a pandemic that emergency services workers are experiencing first-hand as they carry out the vital work needed to keep the public safe.
Words: John Apter, National Chair, Police Federation of England and Wales
But one of the most shocking statistics during this crisis is the fact that there has been an astonishing 14 percent* spike in assaults against emergency workers; the very people looking to help others. As reported by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), overall crime has fallen by a quarter since lockdown began in March, yet my colleagues are on the receiving end of shameful violence and behaviours.
It’s totally unacceptable that some individuals are exploiting this unprecedented global crisis to attack those frontline workers who are trying to keep them and the rest of the public safe.
The NPCC’s findings are supported by data recently released by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which shows that 313 prosecutions for assaults on emergency workers happened in the first month of lockdown.
Police officers and other emergency workers were coughed at and spat on by members of the public claiming to have the virus. In just one example, a teenage girl spat on two officers in North Wales after claiming she had the disease. There have been similar incidents in Brighton, Nottingham, and Kent, and I’m sure that you know of others that have affected you or your colleagues.
To be spat at is heinous, but at a time when COVID-19 is an ever-present threat, this disgusting act takes on an even deadlier dimension – you’re forced into a state of limbo where you have no idea of knowing if you have the virus or not until you can take a test or symptoms present. Aside from the physical effects, the psychological damage of this can be intense, as well as potentially taking emergency services workers away from the frontlines where we’re so desperately needed.
In a time when we are all making huge sacrifices to serve the public, to weaponise this deadly disease is beyond unacceptable.
Those vile individuals who deliberately cough and spit at emergency services workers deserve to face the full force of the law. As National Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, I have made clear to the Home Secretary and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that the sentences must fit the crime. This appalling behaviour must not be tolerated.
I am grateful to Max Hill QC, DPP at the CPS for his support in putting this issue under the spotlight and the Sentencing Council for enhancing the guidance for those found guilty of this type of offence. These are important steps forward in making sure that emergency services workers get the protection that they need and deserve.
But, there is always more to be done. Only recently, a violent repeat offender with a history of assaults on emergency services workers (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/05/26/knife-man-five-repeat-assaults-emergency-staff-escapes-jail/) escaped a jail sentence despite threatening to spit on officers to spread Coronavirus. This issue will remain a top priority for me until every emergency services worker can carry out their job without fear of assault, not just during the current pandemic, but for the future too.
I am doing this not just for my colleagues in the police service but for the entire emergency services family. For far too long, those who have attacked my colleagues have often walked away from court with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. An assault on any emergency worker is an assault on society; it cannot be accepted and must not be tolerated.
I make no apology for wanting those convicted of assault to spend time in prison. If you are attacked while simply doing your job, you should know that the Government and the law is on your side. That is the least that you deserve.
*Update: Provisional figures released by the NPCC for June 2020 show police recorded crime for 43 police forces in England and Wales has fallen overall by 18 percent compared to the same period in June 2019. There is, however, a slight increase in levels of crime compared to the 28 percent fall in recorded crime for the four weeks to 12 April, and the 25 percent fall for the four weeks to 10 May. This is likely due to the effect of lockdown restrictions easing and more people being allowed out of their homes, creating more opportunities for criminals.