Increasing numbers of mental health incidents are being reported to police during the coronavirus lockdown, senior officers have said.
Amid a raging debate about access to public spaces and the impact of restrictions, witnesses told the Home Affairs Committee that issues were being compounded by mental health and social care services losing staff because of the outbreak.
The Police Federation’s lead for coronavirus, Sergeant Simon Kempton, said it was becoming “all too easy for some of these people in crisis to fall through the gaps”.
“It’s going to be vital that we keep an eye on that and there are very early indications of an increase in suicide attempts and suicides,” he told MPs during a session held via video conference on Monday.
Chief Superintendent? Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, said national data on mental health incidents had not yet been collated “but anecdotally from members there is starting to be a slight increase”.
He added: “If we continue the isolation strategies in place there is a risk that mental health issues will increase over the next weeks and months.”
Committee chair Yvette Cooper later asked four regional chief constables whether there was a “tension” between supporting physical wellbeing and mental health with access to parks, and social distancing.
Chief Constable John Robins, of West Yorkshire Police, said local authorities had closed some parks in urban areas because they had become a “magnet for people”.
“The issue was people sitting, congregating and gathering and not fulfilling the spirit of one exercise a day,” he added.
“Groups of people sitting, drinking, perhaps listening to music isn’t in the spirit of the legislation and it isn’t going to stop the spread of the virus … I am satisfied that there are sufficient places for people to get exercise.”
Chief Constable Garry Forsyth, Bedfordshire Police, said officers had been patrolling urban parks and “engaged” with people flouting regulations but had not asked for any closures.
Chief Constable Peter Goodman, of Derbyshire Police, said “very minor” breaches had been dealt with by speaking to members of the public.
But he defended the force’s controversial decision to film walkers in remote areas with a drone, even though they had not committed a crime under new coronavirus rules.
Mr Goodman said the Peak District had been “inundated with visitors” who left local communities “under siege”.
“Elderly residents felt they couldn’t go to the shop to get essentials and when they did there was nothing in there because the tourists had taken everything,” he told the committee. “There was a direct request from our communities for us to do something.”
Mr Goodman said there has now been a decline in visitors to the national park, and that people were behaving “brilliantly” on the whole.
North Yorkshire Police had also been criticised for seeing up roadblocks. Chief Constable Lisa Winward defended the “vehicle engagement points” and said they had been stopped following a drop in car journeys.
The chief constables admitted that it had been a “challenge” to enforce the new coronavirus legislation without the normal period of consultation, preparation and training, but said consistency was improving.
Two sets of guidance have been sent out by the College of Policing on the Coronavirus Act 2020, which applies to “potentially infectious persons”, and Health Protection Regulations, which enforce the lockdown.
Ch Supt Griffiths said the three-day gap between Boris Johnson’s announcement and the regulations coming into force had generated “some confusion”.
“A lot of officers relied on the policy intent before the law was enacted,” he added. “Were there mistakes? Yes there probably were. Were there times where it could have been misinterpreted? Yes, but actually the intent was clear to everybody.”
Sgt Kempton said rank-and-file officers did not initially feel confident implementing the law “because they were getting conflicting messages and different areas were interpreting things differently”.
“Two power points — that is the training we have received,” he added. “We had several days where our only briefing was the guidance the government was giving to the public.”
The chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) wrote to all forces demanding greater consistency a week ago, and guidance has gone out telling officers to use fines and arrests as a last resort.
Apparent confusion over how the Coronavirus Act could be applied resulted in a miscarriage of justice in Newcastle last week, when a woman was fined £660 for an offence she did not commit.
British Transport Police admitted their mistake following media coverage and the woman’s conviction was quashed.
The chief constables appearing before the Home Affairs Committee said said forces had given out between one and 30 fines so far.
MPs were told that the absence rate stands at 13 per cent for officers and staff, but also varies regionally.
Mr Forsyth said that forces were able to maintain “business as usual” because of a fall in routine demand, and isolating officers working from home.
The committee heard that both 999 and 101 calls had fallen overall, but there had been an increase in members of the public reporting alleged breaches of coronavirus restrictions.
“We are clearly seeing a downward trend in public offences and acquisitive crime, emergency and non-emergency calls, arrests and custody,” Ch Supt Griffiths said.
“But there is a concern about the private space, including domestic and child sexual abuse.”
Officers appealed for vulnerable people to seek help and said police were continuing to respond to emergency calls and give support.